Steven Slater’s cathartic meltdown came several hours before a government release signaled that companies have pushed workers about as far as they can go. For the past year, the U.S. economy has been prodding workers to do more, produce more, serve more, with each passing week, without much assistance, and without much of a raise. Over the past four quarters, BLS reported, “unit labor costs fell 2.8 percent as output per hour increased faster than hourly compensation.” But when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the second-quarter productivity numbers on Tuesday, Aug. 10, the results were a little shocking. For the first time in several years, productivity actually fell—at a 0.9 percent annual rate. Workers put in more hours, but output didn’t keep up. They simply can’t run any faster.
Slater’s self-ejection vividly illustrates the personal story behind the numbers. The last couple of years have been a golden era for employers. They’ve been able to hire whomever they want and pay them lower wages. But at some point, companies that want to grow will have to break down and hire new people, or turn part-timers into full-timers, or put contractors on the payroll. Many employers are treating existing and potential employees as if they’re desperate for work. And plenty of Americans are. But desperate times can lead to desperate measures. Push your work force too hard without adequate reward, and someone might occasionally tell you to take this job and shove it.