PBS Feature Claims 'Hurt Feelings' from Layoffs Might Be 'Lethal'
Say the word âdisposableâ and most Americans conjure up images of diapers, cameras, razors etc. But reporter and author Louis Uchitelle says business treats workers as disposable and that layoffs might be lethal.
Uchitelle, a New York Times reporter, appeared on the Sept. 4, 2006, edition of PBSâ âThe NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.â In his interview with PBSâs Paul Solman, Uchitelle promoted his recently published book, âThe Disposable American.â In the book he claimed that âthe Great Depression was less damagingâ than self-esteem decreases resulting from modern layoffs. Lowered self-worth and an increased likelihood of death are just two of downsizingâs byproducts, according to Uchitelleâs book.
In the interview, Solman did not indicate that Uchitelleâs views might be considered extreme. The Business & Media Institute has previously documented Uchitelleâs claims about the effects of self-esteem on the economy.
An excerpt from the book, available online, illuminates his economic philosophy. Uchitelle told the story of Stanley Works (NYSE: SWK) and its former CEO, Donald W. Davis. âHe [Davis] awoke in 1979 to find that customers for Stanley's hand tools were defecting in alarming numbers. The lure was Asian tools. Once-shoddy socket wrenches, screwdrivers, claw hammers, saws, levels, chisels, pliers and measuring tapes imported from Asia had gradually become indistinguishable in quality from Stanley's offerings at 60 percent of the price âŚ Scrambling to respond, they cut prices and, hoping to preserve profits, they began to cut labor costs, at first through attrition and then through layoffs.â Uchitelle went on to say that Davisâ attempt to save his company through layoffs âgot out of hand.â
During the PBS interview, Solman not only agreed with Uchitelleâs assessment of the American unemployment experience, but also accepted his anti-business stance. Solman took for granted that layoffs have become common in the American workplace, failing to mention that the U.S. has seen 35 straight months of job growth.
However, Solman had only enough time to include one layoff anecdote about Al Dunlap, a.k.a. âChainsaw Al.â Dunlap authored the book âMean Businessâ and was a target of fraud investigations by the SEC. Dunlap was hardly a fair representation of an American businessman, especially considering he made Fast Companyâs July 2005 list of the Top 10 Bosses from Hell.
Dunlap was given a brief rebuttal in the argument on layoffs, but it was only a clip from a âNewsHourâ episode aired in 1996. In defense of his layoffs Dunlap stated, âI got rid of 35 percent of the people. But 65 percent of the people have a more secure future than theyâve ever had. And we did this without a single labor interruption or a single grievance.â Though Solman didnât critique Uchitelleâs statements, he did find time to call Dunlapâs claims âoutlandish.â
If viewers werenât already scared enough about the return of the Great Depression, Solman made sure they got the point when he claimed, âLayoffs can be hellish â even lethal.â
Most would agree that losing a job is âhellish,â but even on that subject there is room for discussion. A quick visit to CareerBuilder.com, a job-posting Web site, reveals an article titled, âGetting Fired can be a Good Thing.â The article suggests that a layoff can promote resilience, self-discovery and other personality effects that can bring positive change to an individualâs life.
But Solman charged ahead with another bold claim: âthe average layoff, it turns out, takes years off your life.â He cited a Yale study that found laid-off workers were more likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke. The mortality rate of those afflicted was not discussed. Only one person featured in the segment was identified as a doctor. Dr. Mark Smaller, a psychoanalyst, did not discuss general trends, but shared a personal story. It seems Smallerâs friend was laid off, but âgot a better job right away.â That employment improvement was not enough for Smallerâs friend, who was still losing sleep one year later.
Solman used anecdotal evidence to further his point about the lethal nature of layoffs. Jim Fusco, computer consultant, was interviewed about his fatherâs death. Fusco insisted that his fatherâs death of heart disease was the result of his layoff. Neither Fuscoâs medical credentials nor his fatherâs health prior to the layoff were mentioned.
Viewers were given only brief counter-arguments. CATO Institute Chairman William Niskanen and Martin Baily from the Institute for International Economics disagreed with Uchitelle. These economists argued that policy based on this type of anecdote was inappropriate and would make it difficult for the United States to compete in the global labor market. But Bailyâs and Niskanenâs comments were sandwiched between Uchitelleâs cry for more government regulation and a montage of clips featuring unemployed laborers.
In his May 24, 2005, column for The New York Times, Uchitelle said, âthe unemployment rate is relatively low at 5.2%.â Today the unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, but Uchitelle is still complaining.