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Shared Burdens

Make CEOs Take Pay Cuts

If firms are feeling the pinch of economic pressure, then executives should share in their employees’ sacrifices.

Shahar Azran/Getty Images
WNYC CEO LaFontaine Oliver said, “No option is off the table,” when a reporter asked if the struggling station was considering reducing executive compensation to get through economic headwinds.

It was an interesting bit of timing: On February 7, Nintendo announced that it would institute a 10 percent pay raise for its employees. Consider where this bit of good news landed amid the calendar of corporate goings-on: 34 days after Amazon laid off 18,000 workers; 20 days after Microsoft laid off 10,000 workers; 17 days after Google laid off 12,000 workers; 15 days after Spotify laid off 600 workers; eight days after Paypal laid off 2,000 workers; on the same day Zoom laid off 1,300 workers; two days before Yahoo laid off 1,600 workers; 19 days before Twitter laid off 200 workers; 35 days before Facebook laid off 10,000 workers; and 41 days before Amazon laid off another 9,000 workers.

And it’s not as if Nintendo was enjoying some kind of boom. The news came as the firm, like other tech companies, faced (or at least was publicly claiming to face) diminished economic prospects. Sales of the Switch console had dropped by 20 percent, and projected profits had decreased as well. Unlike other tech companies, Nintendo workers not only kept their jobs but got raises.

In fact, Nintendo as a rule refuses to lay off staff. “If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, employee morale will decrease,” said former CEO Satoru Iwata back in 2013. “I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world.” And Nintendo was doing much worse in 2013 than it is today: The company had lost revenue for three consecutive years, and sales of its Wii U console were persistently low. (Never heard of the Wii U? Exactly.) In response, Iwata made an announcement that is literally unthinkable, at least to me: He and other senior executives would take massive pay cuts, with Iwata himself slashing his salary in half.

I write this not to praise Nintendo as a paragon of good management and fair labor practices. You’d be hard-pressed to describe it that way: The company engages in union-busting and relies on underpaid contractors, and it’s not clear if that 10 percent pay raise will apply to all workers or only those in Japan. And apparently, “taking pay cuts and giving up bonuses are commonplace for executives in Japan when companies underperform or are hit by scandals.”

But it’s an interesting practice to consider alongside the current turmoil that has engulfed my own profession. I work in the audio industry, which—because it exists at the intersection of tech and media—has been particularly affected by this wave of high-profile layoffs. Just for fun, let’s keep going with the opening paragraph’s gimmick: 123 days before Nintendo’s pay-raise announcement, Spotify laid off 38 workers; 16 days after, NPR laid off at least 100 workers; 27 days after, SiriusXM laid off 475 workers; 120 days after, Spotify laid off another 200 workers and closed two podcast studios it had acquired, Gimlet and Parcast.

Some 171 days after, my local member station WESA Pittsburgh canceled its flagship daily news show, The Confluence, and laid off the three staffers who host and produce the show. This news hit particularly close to home: My first ever professional experience in the audio industry was an internship at The Confluence during my last semester of grad school. I was getting an MFA in creative writing—a largely useless degree—and had entered the program as an alternative to being unemployed and living with my parents, which is what I had been doing beforehand.

It was during this period of my life that I started making audio stories and fell in love with the medium. For the first time in my life, I could imagine a future where I had a career instead of a series of gigs. I would no longer have to grade standardized tests, or process data for a law firm that represented a credit card company in bankruptcy cases, or drop fried bananas on the floor as a waiter at a hibachi restaurant—and still serve it to the family of four who clearly hated me and each other (they had a $100 bill and didn’t leave a tip, which honestly, I understand).

So it was particularly frustrating for me to read that after executives at WESA shut down a beloved show and forced three people out of work—people who worked tirelessly to produce essential local journalism and had trained and mentored me while telling terrible puns—the station earmarked “nearly $2.8 million … for salaries and payroll expenses. Of that, nearly $800,000 was allotted to [President and CEO Terry] O’Reilly and the three next highest-earning managers. Asked whether the company was considering executive pay cuts, O’Reilly [said] he is unable to comment while bargaining discussions continue.”

My frustration only grew when I read that WNYC—where I interned after WESA—announced in March a hiring freeze, pause on promotions, and restrictions on overtime, yet still had the money to give its chief content officer a $140,000 pay raise. At a meeting, a worker pointed out that “we’ve seen that executives have taken over $140,000 raises … given these financial headwinds you’re talking about, are executives considering forgoing bonuses?”

“So, um, that’s a great question,” replied WNYC’s new CEO LaFontaine Oliver, who refused to reveal his salary when hired. “No option is off the table. We are considering every option that allows us to control what we can control, which is our expenses, at this point. So yes, that is absolutely on the table.” Three months later, the station’s executives suspended the next intern cycle. As far as I can tell, none of them have taken pay cuts.

I’ve been told many times that “the industry is going through a bit of a crunch time,” that “the industry is getting hit hard all around right now,” that “it is really rough out there, my goodness.” (These are all direct quotes from emails and texts I’ve received.) As I work my connections and compete with hundreds of other applicants for part-time, temporary positions, I can’t help but feel a bit of cognitive dissonance when I read that “2022 Was Another Record Year for Podcasts.” Podcast listenership in the United States jumped from 82 million to 100 million—which means nearly three in 10 Americans listen to podcasts—and “podcast ad dollars are projected to increase from $1.4 billion in 2021 to $4 billion by 2024.”

It’s the same cognitive dissonance I feel whenever I read about the perpetually impending recession—which at this point feels as likely to happen as the second coming of Christ, another long-prophesied event that is somehow always around the corner. I will eat my words if, after I click “publish,” the economy collapses, but the unemployment rate as of July 2023 continues to be an astonishingly low 3.5 percent. And despite the increasing price of consumer goods, “workers got big raises, more than inflation.” As the months pass and the economy keeps humming, the Wall Street Journal headline “Why the Recession Is Always Six Months Away” becomes more and more apt.

In fact, aside from a few “high-profile companies mostly in the tech sector, such as Google’s parent Alphabet, Meta, and Microsoft, layoffs in the economy as a whole remain remarkably, even historically, rare.” As a local restaurant owner told The New York Times, “They’ve talked about a recession since the start of last summer, and if we start worrying about that and anticipating that, we’re going down the wrong rabbit hole.… We just keep on plugging along.”

I am not an economist or industry analyst or anyone with any particular expertise. I am literally a guy on the internet with two liberal arts degrees. In my completely uninformed opinion, employers in specific industries (i.e., tech and media) are talking themselves into a recession, and using this spectral recession as a cudgel against workers. By creating an atmosphere of artificial scarcity and uncertainty, executives can deny overtime, cut budgets, freeze hiring, lay off workers, and replace full-time salaried positions with part-time contract ones, all while continuing to pull in ridiculously large salaries. Because this is where the proceeds of the boom are going, even as the news fills with stories of layoffs alongside those of industries hitting new heights of profitability. And this is why executives aren’t worried about a recession—they want one, or at least the threat of one, because they’ll always be just fine.

Demanding that executives take pay cuts is incremental change, hardly the stuff of radicals. This may be why some actually do so, be it Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata back in 2013 or Apple CEO Tim Cook today, whose salary dropped from an unbelievably obscene $98.7 million in 2021 to an unbelievably obscene $49 million this year. A survey from Resume Builder of 1,000 executives at companies with more than 100 employees revealed that 66 percent of them took pay cuts—but as is clear from Tim Cook’s case, “tech CEO salary cuts aren’t always the sacrifice they seem.”

Pay cuts, it should be said, don’t always prevent layoffs—at least at some types of companies. Zoom CEO Eric Yuan announced he’d cut his salary from eight to six figures after he laid off 1,300 workers. But for smaller media outlets, such as the ones I’ve worked for, executive pay cuts can often make a big difference, especially at nonprofits. As a WNYC intern, I was paid $15 an hour for 35 hours a week over the course of 10 weeks. There were 20 of us, which makes the total cost of an internship cycle $105,000 in compensation; having every executive reduce their pay by at least half surely would’ve saved a program that provides crucial training to early career journalists, producers, archivists, and more.

Ultimately, executives voluntarily forgoing pay cannot, on its own, change the fundamental fact that in this so-called democracy, the places where we spend the majority of our waking lives are dictatorships; that the average CEO makes nearly 400 times more than the average worker, a figure that can only be described as grotesque; that we should fight for a world not where executives are paid less but where they simply do not exist. Until then, I have a modest proposal: If workers suffer, so should executives, if only to balance the scales between those who are just scraping by and those who are doing the taking.