Leaked ESPN memo asks employees to take one for the team

Sports website Deadspin just published a leaked internal memo circulated by ESPN that gives us a small window into the sports entertainment giant’s questionable (at best) labor practices.

ESPN staffers are currently preparing to put on a new international X Games competition in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. In advance of their trip, ESPN operations manager Severn Sandt sent out a memo outlining ESPN’s expectations of its staff.

Citing extreme budget constraints, ESPN is asking its employees to take one for the team on their time sheets. Singling out hourly employees, the memo encourages,

“…Don’t push OT. If it’s 9:10, take the 9:00 out – don’t push for 9:30.”

The legality of this admonition aside, let’s put it into a broader business context. ESPN is owned mostly by The Walt Disney Company, and accounts for almost half of the entire value of the Disney empire. With a valuation of $40 billion, according to Wunderlich, ESPN is by no means suffering from prohibitive financial constraints.

The memo doesn’t stop at the gentle prodding around creative clock-outs though; it goes on to request that employees punch out a few hours early here and there to help out the corporate cause. As the email states,

Heck, maybe you’d like to actually contribute an hour or two of your OT to the cause and take a 7:00 out. Trust me—no one’s going to the bank on this one. If this idea appeals to anyone, we can start an honorary wall of contributors in the office.”

ESPN’s request here, which is couched in disarming language, is that staffers essentially be complicit in wage theft. Asking employees to clock out early and volunteer for their employer is both illegal and indicative of broader trends taking place in the labor market. A deep-pocketed employer taking on the potential financial risk of a new business venture should not balance that risk on the backs of its employees.

This memo manages to hit on two major shifts in the labor market that have played out over the last 30 years. Details of these trends are explained in the report Vast majority of wage earners are working harder, and for not much more by Larry Mishel. From 1979 to 2007, the average annual hours worked by middle-fifth workers (those whose incomes fall into the middle of the income distribution) increased from 1,787 hours to 1,983 hours. That increase is equivalent to every employee working an additional 4.9 weeks per year. In that same period, wages for those workers grew by only 15.8%, and most of that growth occurred in a short period from 1995–2000 when productivity accelerated.

The story for the lowest-wage workers is even worse. From 1979–2007, bottom-fifth workers increased their annual hours by 22.0% and saw a real wage increase of only 7.7%. To put that into perspective, in this same period, the pay of the top fifth of wage-earners increased by 30.2%.

As productivity and total hours worked have increased significantly, a majority of the workforce is working harder, and with little extra in their pockets to show for it.

Questionable labor practices like those articulated in ESPN’s memo allow employers to squeeze ever more work out of their employees, while making sure the fruits of that labor always flow upwards to the corporate suite and shareholders.

The offer in the memo to “start an honorary wall of contributors [of free labor] in the office” is almost comical in its obtuseness. Employees working towards the profit motive of a corporation must be paid in full for their work, as a matter of law and of common sense. Until “honorary walls” can pay for rent and groceries, ESPN, and employers on the whole, must pay their employees for every hour worked.