If you've shopped for or purchased a new car, you notice that window stickers are a decent source of unintentional hilarity. In an effort to make each car seem as feature-laden and fully loaded as possible, manufacturers will often list items so basic that no car could be sold without them. Steering wheel. Bumpers (front and rear!) Radio. Windshield wipers. Cupholders. It's certainly fair to point out that the car has these amenities, but as a consumer, you're interested in what the car offers beyond the bleedingly obvious.

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So that's what car dealers emphasize. You already know it comes with seat belts and a dashboard, so the dealer is going to sell you on satellite radio and rear view cameras. To do otherwise would be suspicious. Let's put it this way: if their sales pitch is "This car has a windshield!", as a consumer you would assume (justifiably, no doubt) that this is a pretty lousy car.

I think of this example every time I receive a pay stub. My current and most recent former employer both embraced the new "management theory" trend of giving employees lengthy statements of benefits or "Total Compensation" figures.

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For example, the pay stub lists not only my salary and what I pay to get health insurance, but also what my employer contributes monthly to the cost of my insurance. As the cost of health plans is quite substantial, this adds many thousands of dollars in additional income.

Er, "compensation."

In a sense, I think this is a great idea if for no reason other than to show Americans the behind-the-curtain costs of our ridiculous system of health care. In every other sense I find this practice somewhere between irritating and insulting.

When I say my employer gives me a list, I mean a list. There must be 30 things that I am told are part of my overall "compensation". This includes some items of real economic value – contributions to insurance and TIAA-CREF, for example – but is lengthened substantially by things of minimal value (discounted tickets to university sporting events?) or almost none (free notary service!) Most irritating are the things that one cannot avoid having on a university campus – e.g., use of the library or rec center.

The university must have these facilities. Allowing me to use them costs my employer absolutely nothing. How does this constitute "compensation"?

I object to this practice because it is little more than a smoke-and-mirrors trick employers are now using because Americans have finally begun to notice that their wages – you know, the actual money we get paid – hasn't changed in the last few years. Statistically, adjusting for inflation real wages have actually fallen for most Americans since 1970. These statements of benefits are intended to (over) compensate for the semi-annual "By the way, unfortunately there is no money for raises this year" letters and emails. You're not getting a raise, but look at how much we already pay you. It's way more than just your salary – it's also free use of the university parking deck on weekends!

Stop complaining already, you ingrates. Look at how much we do for you. It's almost admirable, the amount of the balls it takes to pursue a strategy of telling employees, "You don't understand your own compensation" in salary negotiations, as if landlords and banks will accept free library checkout privileges in lieu of cash.

26 thoughts on “OVERCOMPENSATING”

  • I take issue with the idea that a library is one of those things a university has to have. You would think so, but as public librarians (I'm one) are inundated with students from (four year) schools with shitty libraries and no reference help to navigate them. Worse yet are the online/correspondence schools that charge tons of cash and give their students NO library, just sponge off the local library in a community that they don't support in any way.

    Sorry to threadjack. Your main point is valid. We get those stubs at the end of the year, too. They include a life insurance policy that as a single person with no dependents, I don't need, never wanted and never asked for, and whose bennies will go Jah knows where. We laugh about our ginormous inflated stub each year.

  • I work at a large, major Canadian university. We do not get free access to any rec centres on campus. So… I don't have a point, I'm just bitter about that. It's just sitting there. But no.

  • I'm actually going to disagree with this post some. You don't appreciate all of the benefits of a university-affiliation until you are no longer affiliated with one. Library resources, especially online subscriptions, are expensive and not available to others. Cheap workout centers, software packages for your personal computer…these are real benefits that I did not appreciate until I finished my graduate degree and left campus. I understand your frustration with the university trying to distract from lack of rising wages, but the benefits are not nothing.

  • I worked at a law office once where we'd get these statements of benefits at the end of the year to show us how fabulously well off we were (and honestly, the firm did pay at the higher end for firms in the town). As benefits, though, they'd include things they were legally required to contribute to: FICA and unemployment insurance being two. I was in the doghouse for a fair amount of time after pointing this out to the office manager.

  • This info isn't on our pay stubs, but it is a tab in PeopleSoft that can be enabled, so they've enabled it. It does show taxes, and mandatory workers' and unemployment insurance, but in a separate section. I appreciate knowing that, because honestly it's a big mystery and we're brainwashed constantly by employers talking about how expensive that stuff is. But I pay far, far, far more (gladly) in income tax every paycheque than any of those mandatory withholdings, so I feel fully justified in telling the business-is-so-hard-done-by shills to shut up and feel like I actually know what I'm talking about. Also, knowing total compensation (pension, particularly) has helped when negotiating private-sector wages that don't necessarily include those things. People tend to ignore their aggregate value. In all, if not used to list trivial and stupid stuff, I think it's generally a useful feature.

  • Last time we went bargained with the university administration, we decided we would go in for a 7%, across-the-board raise. We chose this figure for two reasons: (1) 44% of our bargaining unit make below the minimum wage; this raise would be sufficient to bring about half that number to or slightly above minimum wage, and (2) because the top 5% of university administrators had just given themselves a 7% wage. Moreover, we didn't even ask for 7% right now; we asked for 4% now, and two 1.5% over the next two academic terms.

    I sat at this bargaining table while the head of university HR informed our team that we were in essence asking for an "exorbitant" (nevermind the utter lack for shame in using this word in front of people who teach 31% of FTE and make below-poverty-line wages) 16% raise. Where did this number come from? Why, these generous lords had raised tuition 9% over the previous 2 years, and since tuition is part of our compensation as grad students, WE HAD ALREADY GOTTEN A 9% RAISE.

    This was the argument we were given. We then asked for the math behind the compensation figure the grad school publishes on it's website. For example, a level II grad student takes home about $1200/month, and unless they teach, aren't paid in the summer (and summer is paid at a different rate, lump sum, less taxes), but the grad school advertises the yearly stipend at level II at around $27K/yr. That was nearly two years ago. We have never received a sheet that accurately represents the disparity between our actual pay and the published figure.

    We are going into bargaining this year. I can only imagine what sort of undergraduate sophistry we will have to endure at the table this year as they try and tell us why we're being greedy for not wanting to give up our health care plan.

  • When my company loudly rolled out it's "My Benefits" website about a month before annual reviews, where they proudly show all of your compensation (including things they are legally obligated to pay like FICA taxes, and -this one is my favorite -the contributions that I personally make to my retirement account from my paycheck -yeah, they count that), I immediately thought, "Crap. This means they're planning to give shitty raises this year." Unfortunately, I was right.

  • It's also probably relevant for tax deductions for the company, because they're allowed to write off certain compensation that they provide.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    This might be just slightly OT:
    I'll never forget, about 25 years ago, as Time Inc. merged with Warner, I was working at a Time cable company.
    We knew before the merger, that Warner Supervisors made more money, but we also knew their hours were longer – they had an 8 to 5 day, while we had a 9 to 5 day (and as Management, even back then, it was rare to come and leave went at according to that clock). And we Time folks, had more days off.

    Time trumpeted to all of us were getting a nice raise!
    By law, Time HAD to pay all of us the same amount of money.

    But some of us pointed out that, not only were we underpaid for years, but now, we had to work at least 5 hours more a week, without additional compensation for those hours, and have less holidays – and so, if you factored that in, we actually LOST money when we got our "raise."

    We were told, if you like your jobs, then STFU!!!
    I left shortly after that.

  • In principle, I'd tend to vote for such disclosure rather than against. But they need to be well categorized: mandatory, employer-elective and employee-matching is one axis; out-of-pocket and "cash equivalent" is another; annual, monthly/weekly and one-time/"award" is yet another. And there are probably others. And each of the "cash equivalent" ones needs to have a very good justification as to why they chose that figure to put there (and in larger and/or public places there should be oversight on that process), and if they report "total compensation" they should report it both with and without that category.

    The company I work for (a big multinational) started doing it this year, and they actually only list the "real", out-of-pocket items in the "total compensation" tab. There's a list of "on top of that, you have these extra benefits" with things like a birthday present and "service awards" on it, but it's never summed up or given monetary value. I'd rather have this reported to me up front than have to dig and deduce it from the various statements and forms that litter the relevant internal websites (and the external ones too: a lot of this is actually outsourced and you have to go outside the company's domain to get it).

  • Free rec center access? sick #humblebrag, dude. Both my current employer, and my alma mater charge ~$400/year for faculty/staff access.

  • I'd agree that library access is a mandatory thing, but rec centre access is definitely a perk. As it should be: it's really not part of the core mission of the university (or, shouldn't be), nor is it directly related to your job as a college professor (unless you're in the PE or physical therapy departments, of course).

  • Send me a postcard from whatever fucking planet you're on where a rec center is an optional accessory on a college campus desperately attempting to recruit 18 year old high school students. Also provide a list of campuses in the US that do not have a gym or some sort of athletic facility for students.

  • Off on a tangent, if only because my college teaching career was nothing more than fifteen years of my life and a hundred thousand something dollars in unpayable debt wasted, the reason all Ford pickups are "custom" is that back in the day heaters were optional, and when Henry began offering them as "standard" the trucks became custom. True story.

    No fear.

  • "In a sense, I think this is a great idea if for no reason other than to show Americans the behind-the-curtain costs of our ridiculous system of health care."

    I think everyone should do that for that very reason. At my husband's work, they DON'T do that … and his employees (mostly police officers) are constantly complaining about how everything always sucks, and since they're all rabid right-wingers they also always blame Obama for everything. Also, they're always trying to build a Bigger, Better Police State and whenever the husband says no, I can't add three new officers, you don't need them and the cost would kill us, they totally don't get it. They've got gold-plated benefits and don't even realize it.

    Now, where I hate this upselling BS is when I'm shopping for a hotel room. Love the room descriptions on the internet: "1200 thread count sheets … hair dryer … bathrobes … Cable TV … WiFi $25 a day…" LOL.

    Seriously, get over your damn selves, hospitality industry. Oh, and if you're not giving me free WiFi? You're dead to me.

  • We have to pay to park our cars, you know, in order to go to work on campus.
    I pay 180 bucks a month and the state picks up the rest for a grand total of $1111 every month for me and my wife. That's more than my mortgage. We are a nation of idiots.

  • It may also be a matter of "hey, we offer all these things and the employees never take advantage of them. Maybe they don't know!"

    (Also, not only do my university's employees not get free access to the Rec center… the graduate students don't either!)

  • I think the total compensation information can be of some value to employees. As a manager, the thing I don't appreciate is when our HR director tells us we should be pushing the total compensation information when we have discussions with our direct reports about why raises are so low. You can provide me with the information and I will look at it and take it all into account, but don't ask me to be your propaganda arm because my employees are going to see right through that bullshit.

  • I actually had a car salesman ask me once: "Will you be wanting a rear bumper on that?"

    I bought elsewhere.

  • I think you missed something, Ed – this method offers a neat little, underappreciated tagline as well, as Pmayo points out. Every time the cost of these "ancillary compensations" goes up (parking fees jump $100/year; HMO charges get raised, etc.), why you've gotten a raise! This applies to everyone, in every job; not just grad students. Bookkeepers rule.

  • I used to work for an airline that has now recently purchased a bloated, bankrupt airline. They're known for paying some of the shittiest wages in the airline industry. They pay on average 10-20 percent less for a comparable positions.

    They claim that giving the "benefit of free flight" should count for 25-30 percent of that salary, and should make up for the difference. What they don't tell you is that they try to fly at 95 percent capacity, and oversell most major markets. The chances of you getting your happy tush to Hawaii for a free vacation and slim to none, and slim just went on a hunger strike. Let's not even talk about how you can't afford to pay for a hotel room once you get anywhere, so you're stuck couch surfing as a professional.

    Long story short, "Total Compensation" is complete BS. But, when I left, you better believe I added that flight benefit percentage to my salary, so I wouldn't get lowballed in the next position.

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