U.S. workers must protect themselves from uncontrollable influences

This week's prescription: Self-protection. Photo: AP file

WASHINGTON, October 11, 2013 – The ongoing Federal government shutdown and the nation’s persistently high unemployment rate are having a profound and lasting impact on America’s workers. All workers must understand the ongoing situation affects them them and then they must act.

The employment cycle has changed throughout the decades. Prior to the 1990s, employees were dedicated to one company for most of their careers. They were loyal. If they were well-qualified and willing to step up to the challenge, their salaries and benefits increased steadily and fairly predictably throughout their careers.

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From the 1990s until about 2007, employees began to experience a new approach to employment. Gradually understanding they would rarely if ever experience any significant jumps in pay if they remained loyal to their current employer, they began to jump from company to company, earning higher pay each time they jumped. They often earned “sign on” bonuses as well. On the flip side, many customary, long-term benefits, such as defined pensions, were disappearing. The new employees invested their money instead in private 401(k) accounts that were generally transferable to each new job they took.

Temp package delivery worker. (AP/file)

In 2008, the employment situation changed yet again, and for the worse. America’s economy collapsed into what many now call the “Great Recession,” and unemployment rose to 12% and higher depending on the yardstick applied. Today, finding a job has remained difficult, and jumping from job to job to increase one’s salary is no longer a reliable option. 

As we journey through 2013, we are seeing that it has become routine for American workers to be laid off or furloughed, often at the drop of a hat. Private and public companies cannot protect their workers when there is a shortage of cash, as there is now for many during the current Federal government shutdown. This means that companies simply cannot hold onto employees when they are not bringing in sufficient revenues, as with most contractors to the Federal government who work for contracting firms on an “at will” basis. 

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For example, in the government or public sector, no budget has been passed and there is limited funding for certain government agencies based on previous spending levels. In the private and particularly the retail sector, consumer confidence is low so consumers are not spending their money. This leads to poor cash flow in businesses catering to increasingly strapped consumers. In addition, it is difficult for companies to borrow money to cover costs so they cannot hold onto their employees during these cash shortages.

What should the American worker think and do under current circumstances?  At this time, it’s clear that neither publicly traded nor privately owned companies are putting the American worker first.  In addition, the government is stalled and unions, save those in the public sector, are quite weak. 

In this environment, American workers must learn to protect themselves, no longer relying on corporate or government promises. They must plan for any potential outcome.

In general, self-protection, selfishness and self-interest in the workplace are undesirable worker traits since companies want to hire workers who are devoted to the interests of the business. But company loyalty is a two-way street, which many companies seem to have forgotten.

In today’s work environment, it’s clear that American workers must look out for their own interests at the same time they are working for their companies. This means, at least in part, that American workers should learn to consume less in order to accumulate cash savings that will pay for about three to six months of bills in the event they are laid off or furloughed.  It is easier to say than do, but saving slowly over time is the best course.

When there is money in the bank, at least the American worker can rely on himself or herself to take care of bills when external sources let them down.

It is also important for every potential or existing employee to pay bills on time and avoid taking money out of existing savings or retirement accounts to maintain a lifestyle that’s beyond current means without borrowing. Depleting crucial savings or retirement accounts can permanently damage a worker’s future ability to obtain loans and credit. The only way to stay on track is to create an emergency savings account that can be used in times of need.

Many workers are going back to school when they lose their jobs. This is often a good idea whether or not there is a traumatic event like a layoff or furlough. Adding to a set of skills or increasing the breadth of those skills is always a good idea in an economy that continually changes.

As we all know, skills in health care, environmental technology, information technology and engineering are desired skills in this environment. American workers can take control of their own lives by focusing on continuously improving their skills. But again in the current environment, try to avoid going deeply into debt when improving or acquiring skills. Inexpensive community college courses or trade schools, as opposed to expensive degree programs, will often do the trick.

Another effective strategy for American workers is to increase their mental and physical health to deal with stress.  The current work environment consists of anxiety and fear of the unknown. This creates stress. Physical exercise increases “feel-good” hormones, and it increases mental acumen. 

Mental strength can be increased by meditating. For those who like more active mental strengthening, they can play challenging games (with a timer if possible). For example, crossword puzzles, bridge and Sudoko increase focus, intelligence and mental strength.

Each American worker must take as much active control of his or her life as possible so that when unexpected business problems arise, he or she is prepared. 

It is easy to feel like a victim or to feel at fault when layoffs occur, salaries decrease, benefits decrease and furloughs occur because, in these cases, others are in control and your own environment feels out of control. These feeling are typically misplaced, but they can be damaging to one’s self-esteem. It takes a regular job today not to feel victimized.

Until and if this environment changes, American workers need to depend more upon themselves and less upon their companies. It’s simply the safe and prudent thing to do.


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Cassi Fields

Dr. Cassi Fields has provided expert opinion on career and workplace issues for nationally recognized media outlets including Forbes, TheStreet TV, MSNBC.com, FOX News Live, US News & World Report, Recruiter.com, WUSA9, News Channel 8, HR.com, and more. Dr. Fields, who received her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from George Washington University, lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.

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