Labor Costs

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 19th, 2012

Economics 101

Small Business Owners may have Nicer Homes but Chances are they are Mortgaged to the Hilt

A lot of people think business owners are cheapskates.  Greedy bastards.  Who hate their employees.  And try to pay them as little as possible.  Not for any business reasons.  But just because they are so greedy.  And hateful.  During bad economic times when the employer has to make some cuts labor leaders will tell the rank and file don’t believe the employer.  “Just look at the house the boss lives in.  And the house you live in.  Whose is better?  Bigger?  That’s right.  The boss’ house is.  Always remember that.”

Yes, bosses may have nicer homes.  But chances are they are mortgaged to the hilt.  Not to mention the fact that these bosses may be working an 80-hour week.  Which is not uncommon for a small business owner.  Especially during bad economic times.  As they may be negotiating with creditors, their banker, their vendors, keeping their customers happy and trying to find new customers.  While the rank and file work their 40 hours, collect their paychecks and enjoy their free time.

So it’s not easy being the boss.  That’s why so few people want to be the boss.  For it’s easier being an employee.  You work.  You get paid.  And you leave work at work.  Even if you think you’re not being paid as much as you deserve to be.  Something most employees feel.  That they’re overworked.  And underpaid.  But they never look at things through their employer’s eyes.  And see what they really cost their boss.

Most Businesses have gone from a Defined Benefit Pension Plan to a Defined Contribution 401(k)

What an employee gets paid and what an employer pays for that employee are two different things.  To begin with an employer pays for more hours of an employee’s time than he or she actually works.  When you factor in vacation time, holidays and sick days an employer may pay for 2,080 hours while the employee only works 1,896 hours.  If an employee makes $35 an hour those nonworking hours can add up to $6,440.  Which an employee gets for doing nothing.  We call them fringe benefits.  Just an employer’s way of saying, “Hey, I don’t hate you.  Here’s some money for doing nothing.”

Why do they pay this?  Because of free market capitalism.  If they don’t pay it someone else may.  And attract their good workers away from them.  Because if there is something employees will do is jump ship the moment they get a better offer.  Which is a good thing.  This is supply and demand.  And despite workers feeling overworked and underpaid this free market dynamic makes sure employees get paid as much as they can while helping employers pay as little as they can.  That equilibrium point where employees will keep working.  While leaving employers still competitive.  Though that’s getting harder and harder to do these days.  As the cost of doing business has never been higher.

In addition to these fringe benefits there are also health insurance, life insurance and retirement contributions.  With health care often being the greatest single employee cost to a small business owner.  Which is why most now make employees pay a small portion of their health care these days.  Retirement contributions have also gotten very costly.  Few people still have a defined benefit pension plan these days.  Typically an owner will offer a defined contribution 401(k) for the employee to contribute to.  And if times are good the employer may match their contribution up to a certain amount.  But employers will call this a discretionary contribution.  And it will be one of the first things to go when they are having cash flow problems in a bad economy.

The Last Thing a Business Owner needs while trying to Deal with Soaring Labor Costs are more Costs and Taxes

In addition to fringe benefits there are payroll taxes and insurances.  Such as Social Security.  Which the employer and employee split.  At least in theory.  The employer currently pays 6.2% on the first $110,100 in an employee’s earnings.  The employee kicks in 4.2% (which may go up another 2 points after the fiscal cliff, as that tax cut expires).  In reality the employee doesn’t pay any of this.  They get their check and go on their way while the employer has to find the cash to pay the 10.4% due.  For an employee earning $66,360 that Social Security tax payable comes to $7,571.  Another big check the owner has to write is for state unemployment.  Which can be anywhere around $4,000.  The following chart summarizes these and additional labor costs (note: the retirement contribution is probably between a 401(k) matching contribution and a defined benefit pension contribution).

An employee with a pay rate of $35/hour will gross $66,360.  Deductions will lower actual take-home pay.  But the employer’s total cost for this employee in this example is $108,252.  Or an additional $41,892 than the employee grosses.  Which comes out to another $17.04 an hour.  Something the employee never sees.  This is why labor is so costly.  And why employers want to hire as few people as possible.  For each additional employee they hire (in this example) they have to pay an additional 22.2% in payroll taxes/insurances.  And an additional 41% in fringe benefits.  Or a combined 63.1%.  In addition to what they’re paying the employees for their actual work.

And this is why employers want to offload health care (especially for their retirees).  And their pension liabilities.  As they can add an additional 30% (or more) to their labor costs.  What started out as fringe benefits to attract some of the best workers is now bankrupting many companies.  People are living so long into their retirement that these cost are growing faster and larger than any other cost a business has.  And it’s also why small business owners are very worried about new regulations and taxes.  For the last thing they need while trying to deal with these soaring labor costs are more costs.  Or taxes.  Which doesn’t make them cheap or greedy.  It just makes them very cautious business owners who are trying to keep their businesses afloat in an ever more difficult business environment.

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