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LABOR DAY 1999

The economy surfs the crest of a historic peacetime expansion. The stock market gallops ahead like a robust Pamplona bull chasing runners. Unemployment remains well below 5 percent. Inflation is firmly underfoot.

These are heady times indeed for America. But not all Americans are sharing the benefits.

A recent survey of attitudes about work found Americans in huge numbers are happy in their jobs. Almost 91 percent of those questioned reported they were satisfied with work, and 28 percent went so far as to say they loved it.

However, "Work Trends," an annual survey of attitudes about employment, employers and government, also found some cracks in the cheerful portrait of working men and women.

A "vast majority" of those polled by Rutgers University's John J. Hedrich Center for Workforce Development and the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research and Analysis are concerned about their ability to balance work and family, and feel stressed by work demands.

"The demands of the expanding, strong economy appear to be placing increased work demands on employees, causing a decrease in overall satisfaction in this area," the researchers concluded.

The ability to balance work and family is tied to the number of hours worked per week, and Americans are putting in longer stretches than ever at the workplace. They now spend an average of 44 hours per week on the job, and although 13 percent of those questioned wouldn't mind working even more, 30 percent want to work less, the survey found.

Moreover, although job satisfaction is generally high, "significant and important variation does exist across income levels," with lower-paid workers less satisfied with many aspects of their employment, including their overall income, health and medical benefits and their retirement and pension plans, the survey revealed.

A recent report that the pay of the average worker and that of top corporate executives has widened into a gulf during the 1990s gives working people more reason to grumble.

"A Decade of Executive Excess," the sixth annual survey of executive compensation by two pro-labor think tanks, the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, found the ratio of top-executive to factory-worker pay has exploded this decade from 42 to 1 in 1980 to 419 to 1 last year.

The report said average annual compensation for a chief executive of a large company was $10.6 million last year, roughly a fivefold increase from the $1.8 million of 1990.

By contrast, the average production worker took home $29,000 in 1998.

And so, most working Americans must regard this final Labor Day of the millennium with mixed emotions. They can only hope the good times roll right into the next century -- and that even more of the benefits filter down to them.

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