The wage gap between chief executives and workers at some of the US companies with the lowest-paid staff grew even wider last year, with CEOs making an average of $10.6m, while the median worker received $23,968.
A study of 300 top US companies released by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) on Tuesday found the average gap between CEO and median worker pay jumped to 670-to-1 (meaning the average CEO received $670 in compensation for every $1 the worker received). The ratio was up from 604-to-1 in 2020. Forty-nine firms had ratios above 1,000-to-1.
At more than a third of the companies surveyed, IPS found that median worker pay did not keep pace with inflation.
The report, titled Executive Excess, comes amid a wave of unionization efforts among low wage workers and growing scrutiny of the huge share buyback programs many corporations have been using to inflate their share prices. US companies announced plans to buy back more than $300bn of their own shares in the first quarter of the year and Goldman Sachs has estimated that buybacks could top $1tn in 2022.
Share-related remuneration makes up the largest portion of senior executive compensation and as buybacks generally boost a company’s share price, they also boost executive pay. Senator Elizabeth Warren has called buybacks “nothing but paper manipulation” designed to increase executive pay.
The report found that two-thirds of low-wage corporations that cut worker pay in 2021 also spent billions inflating CEO pay through stock buybacks.
The biggest buyback firm was home improvement chain Lowe’s, which spent $13bn on share repurchases. That money could have given each of its 325,000 employees a $40,000 raise, according to IPS. Instead, median pay at the company fell 7.6% to $22,697.
“CEOs’ pandemic greed grab has sparked outrage among Americans across the political spectrum,” said report lead author Sarah Anderson, director of the IPS Global Economy Project. She cited one recent poll that showed that 87% of Americans see the growing gap between CEO and worker pay as a problem for the country.
IPS noted that many of the companies in its sample were also the recipients of large federal government contracts. Forty companies in the sample were awarded $37.2bn in government contracts between 1 October 2019 and 1 May 2022.
The biggest recipient was Maximus, a company that manages federal student debts and Medicare call centers, which received $12.3bn in federal contracts. In 2021, Maximus CEO Bruce Caswell collected $7.9m in compensation, 208 times the firm’s median paycheck. Maximus workers have recently staged walkouts over pay and benefits.
Amazon, the second-largest federal contractor in the sample, amassed $10.3bn in federal contracts. Last month shareholders approved a $212m pay deal for Amazon’s CEO, Andy Jassy, 6,474 times the company’s median pay.
This report offers a number of policy solutions, including actions president Joe Biden could take without waiting for Congress. “The president could wield the power of the public purse by introducing new standards making it hard for companies with huge CEO-worker pay gaps to land a lucrative federal contract,” Anderson said. The report also urges Biden to ban top executives at federal contractors from selling their personal stock for a multi-year period after a buyback.