PBS Feature Claims 'Hurt Feelings' from Layoffs Might Be 'Lethal'

     Say the word “disposable” 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 PBS’ “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” In his interview with PBS’s Paul Solman, Uchitelle promoted his recently published book, “The Disposable American.” In the book he claimed that “the Great Depression was less damaging” than self-esteem decreases resulting from modern layoffs. Lowered self-worth and an increased likelihood of death are just two of downsizing’s byproducts, according to Uchitelle’s book.


     In the interview, Solman did not indicate that Uchitelle’s views might be considered extreme. The Business & Media Institute has previously documented Uchitelle’s 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. “He [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 … 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.” Uchitelle went on to say that Davis’ attempt to save his company through layoffs “got out of hand.”


     During the PBS interview, Solman not only agreed with Uchitelle’s 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. “Chainsaw Al.” Dunlap authored the book “Mean Business” 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 Company’s 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 “NewsHour” episode aired in 1996. In defense of his layoffs Dunlap stated, “I got rid of 35 percent of the people. But 65 percent of the people have a more secure future than they’ve ever had. And we did this without a single labor interruption or a single grievance.”  Though Solman didn’t critique Uchitelle’s statements, he did find time to call Dunlap’s claims “outlandish.”


     If viewers weren’t already scared enough about the return of the Great Depression, Solman made sure they got the point when he claimed, “Layoffs can be hellish – even lethal.”


     Most would agree that losing a job is “hellish,” 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, “Getting Fired can be a Good Thing.” The article suggests that a layoff can promote resilience, self-discovery and other personality effects that can bring positive change to an individual’s life.


     But Solman charged ahead with another bold claim: “the average layoff, it turns out, takes years off your life.” 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 Smaller’s friend was laid off, but “got a better job right away.” That employment improvement was not enough for Smaller’s 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 father’s death. Fusco insisted that his father’s death of heart disease was the result of his layoff. Neither Fusco’s medical credentials nor his father’s 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 Baily’s and Niskanen’s comments were sandwiched between Uchitelle’s 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, “the unemployment rate is relatively low at 5.2%.” Today the unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, but Uchitelle is still complaining.