Loss of bonuses hurts rank-and-file

NEW YORK — To President Barack Obama, Wall Street's $18.4 billion in bonuses is "shameful." To thousands of bank employees who don't sit in corner offices, that money helps pay the bills.

Outrage over the bonuses reached as high as the White House this week following news that financial firms were rewarding employees even as they were being bailed out with billions of taxpayer dollars. The feelings are understandable: The average Wall Street bonus of $112,000 was about twice the average American's income.

But the issue is a complicated one.

Although Wall Street investment banks and other financial firms make headlines for the millions paid out to certain executives, more modest bonuses go to workers from human-resources representatives to secretaries, as well as to employees who actually made money for their companies last year.

Jason Weisberg, vice president of the Wall Street brokerage Seaport Securities, said bank employees count on performance bonuses the same way salesmen count on commissions.

"What are you supposed to pay them?" Weisberg asked. "Or are you not supposed to pay them? And if you don't pay them, how do you expect that employee to stay employed at that company?"

A product manager at one investment bank said she is cutting corners after her 2008 bonus fell by 38 percent, even though her job performance exceeded expectations and her division posted a profit. To save money, she's raising the deductible on her health insurance to lower the premium, shopping around for less expensive car insurance and cutting back on small luxuries.

"My bills haven't gone down by 40 percent," said the worker, who isn't being named because talking to the news media is against her employer's rules.

Many argue that anyone who works at a bank right now should feel lucky to be employed — after all, hundreds of thousands of their colleagues have been shown the door over the past year.

Most compensation experts say bonuses will be much lower in the coming years, but that some sort of bonus system should stay in place at these institutions to separate strong performers from laggards.

Part of the problem with bonuses for 2008 stem from many of them being contractually guaranteed before the banks' troubles escalated.

The government's Troubled Assets Relief Program required compensation for senior executives to be subject to "clawbacks" — the companies would recoup pay if it was based on inaccurate information, or if the employee's actions hurt the company. But it did not give the government authority to scrap bonus contracts