Ken White had a good job at a credit card processor for 22 years, but he was laid off in the Great Recession.
Today, at 56, White does similar work. Yet everything feels different. He's a contractor for a technology services firm that assigns him to manage tech projects for a regional bank. He's paid just two-thirds of his old salary. The bonuses and stock awards he once earned are gone.
Despite the U.S. economy's job growth, White and others like him don't feel like beneficiaries of the longest expansion on record. The kinds of jobs they once enjoyed — permanent positions, with bonuses and opportunities to move up — are now rarer.
"It's not as easy as it was," White says.
White's evolution from employee to contractor is emblematic of a trend in the American workplace: The economy keeps growing. Unemployment is at a half-century low. Yet many people feel their jobs have been devalued by employers that increasingly prioritize shareholders and customers.
Economic research, government data and interviews with workers sketch a picture of lagging wages, eroding benefits and demands for employees to do more without more pay. Experts say a confluence of forces are at play: globalization, workplace automation, a decline of labor unions, fiercer price competition and outsourcing.
"We've made decisions and baked into the structure this extreme inequality," said Barbara Dyer of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
A collaborative analysis of the 2018 General Social Survey by The AP-NORC Center and GSS staff finds more people saying work has grown more demanding. Around one in three American workers said they face too much work to do everything well. About one in five held a job other than their main one. About three-quarters had to work extra hours beyond their usual schedule at least once a month. Those numbers are up from 2006.
A Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis analysis found corporate profits have far outpaced employee compensation since the early 2000s.
Paul Nota has worked at CVS in Massachusetts since 2002 in several roles: technician, supervisor, assistant manager. He likes CVS and still works there part time. But he's noticed a change from earlier days, when he felt CVS "thought of the employee first" — with small appreciations like company barbecues.
Those gestures are mainly gone, he said, while the company asks for more.
Nota, 32, juggles helping people in line, answering calls and handling the drive-thru. He said they've been told they could soon be giving flu shots, but notes they won't get extra pay.
"It's all about rapid growth now," he said. "How can you help the bottom line? And that way is not paying your employees much."
CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said the company has made workflows more efficient with tools such as new phone technology. CVS last year raised minimum starting pay to $11 an hour and stepped up pay raises. DeAngelis said turnover among pharmacy technicians has declined.
Another trend that has disrupted life for some workers is when companies outsource jobs not central to their business.
Companies looking to "to get out of the messy job of employing people" shed janitors, security guards or tech support, said David Weil, dean of the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and a former Obama administration official.
Weil's 2014 book "The Fissured Workplace" documented how companies hire outside firms to do work formerly done in-house. These companies hire people at lower pay with fewer benefits and job protections and in some cases outsource work to still other companies. Sometimes, workers are hired as contractors, who are technically self-employed even though they report to the same workplace.
Hotel brands such as Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton now operate this way. Uber and Instacart are other examples. So are universities that increasingly rely on adjunct professors and distribution centers that use independent contractors.
Experts say there's no definitive data on how many Americans have these kinds of jobs, only that they're increasingly common.
Ruth Milkman, a City University of New York labor sociologist, said people most affected used to be blue collar workers but fissuring has crept up the income scale into tech jobs and others that require college degrees.
Deunionization has also eroded workers' influence, she said. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds the proportion of wage and salary workers in unions was just 10.5% in 2018, down from 20.1% in 1983.
Beginning in the 1970s, experts said, more public companies began to make shareholders their top priority.
Workers since then have been "devalued as stakeholders," said Adam Seth Litwin, associate professor at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "When workers had more power, they had a larger share of that income and of that income growth."
Ken-Hou Lin, a University of Texas at Austin sociology professor, has found a greater focus by companies on shareholders typically leads to an employment decline, with blue-collar production and service workers hit hardest .
Retail is among the hardest hit sectors since the recession. Nearly 16 million people work for U.S. retailers. Several have filed for bankruptcy protection this year, and thousands of stores have closed.
Such pressures weigh on workers like Patty Tamez, who started at Gap in 2006 and notices a decline. Shipments and store changes can come with little warning. Shifts are sometimes cut with less than a day's notice.
"I do schedules, and sometimes it's like, 'OK, how I'm going to get this done?'" said Tamez, of Fort Worth, Texas.
Gap spokeswoman Trina Somera said most stores aren't hit by unscheduled deliveries, and that Gap discourages schedule changes in the same week, but it does happen occasionally.
Tamez was warned that her workweek would be cut from 40 hours to 32. She decided to leave and found a job at Target that she likes.
Still, she wonders if she has a future in retail.