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While Hospital Janitor Got a $6 Cafeteria Voucher, Its CEO Took Home $30 Million

"We need to do better for working people," said one advocate.

Workers walk a picket line in front of the Miami Tower as they strike against the building's cleaning contractor, SFM Services, on February 12, 2021 in Miami, Florida. They accuse the company of having unsafe working conditions, low wages, intimidation and retaliation over union organizing efforts. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Workers walk a picket line in front of the Miami Tower as they strike against the building's cleaning contractor, SFM Services, on February 12, 2021 in Miami, Florida. They accuse the company of having unsafe working conditions, low wages, intimidation and retaliation over union organizing efforts. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In a dramatic but all-too-common illustration of the intensification of income inequality in the U.S., a janitor at a medical center in Missouri who contracted Covid-19 on the job last year was named Employee of the Month and given a $6 cafeteria voucher upon his return to work, while the CEO of the firm that owns the hospital saw his total compensation package grow to $30.4 million.

Receiving a $6 cafeteria gift card after surviving the coronavirus "stung me to the bone," Jamelle Brown—a technician who sanitizes and sterilizes rooms in the emergency department at Research Medical Center in Kansas City—told NBC News Wednesday. 

"It made me sit back and say, 'This place doesn't care for me,'" said Brown, a member of the Service Employees International Union who makes $13.77 an hour after nearly four years at the hospital.

 As NBC News reported:

Research Medical's owner, HCA Healthcare Inc., is a profitable, publicly traded network of 185 hospitals and 121 freestanding surgery centers in 20 states and England. Even in the year of Covid-19, 2020, the company generated $51.5 billion in revenue and increased its pretax earnings by 3.6%. Its shares are up by 14% this year, versus 10% on the Standard & Poor's 500 index.

That performance helped boost the total compensation HCA's chief executive, Samuel N. Hazen, received last year to $30.4 million, a 13% rise from 2019, documents show. Although Hazen's salary was 5.8% lower in 2020, the total worth of his compensation package equaled 556 times the compensation received by the median employee at HCA—$54,651...

Because Brown, the emergency department worker, makes even less than the median, Hazen got roughly 1,000 times Brown's pay. Brown says he lives with his sister because he doesn't earn enough from his job at Research Medical to pay for his own apartment. He said he hasn't had a raise in two years.

These figures provide a stark example of the widening economic gulf between CEOs who appropriate more and more wealth every year versus average workers whose wages have largely stagnated for decades despite gains in productivity.

According to the latest research on the topic conducted by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), top CEOs in the U.S. were paid 320 times as much as typical workers in 2019.

EPI found that the ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was 21-to-1 in 1965 and 61-to-1 in 1989. Between 1978 and 2019, EPI noted, CEO pay soared by 1,167% while typical worker pay grew by just 13.7%.

Hazen declined to discuss his leadership of HCA and his pay with NBC News, but a spokeperson told the news outlet that the company's compensation reflects performance.

"We value our colleagues and the work they do to care for their communities," the spokesperson said in a statement, "and we are committed to offering competitive compensation and benefits packages, as well as opportunities for professional development and career advancement."

When it comes to the CEO-to-median-worker pay ratio, HCA is not even the worst offender at 556-to-1.

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While companies paid their CEOs 320 times more, on average, than rank-and-file workers in 2019, some corporations significantly exceeded that ratio.

For instance, C. Douglas McMillon, Walmart's CEO, was paid $22 million in 2019, 983 times more than the median worker, NBC News noted.

"My raise this year was 30 cents an hour," Cynthia Murray, a 64-year-old Walmart worker in Maryland told the news outlet. "Walmart is one of the richest companies in the world. Why shouldn't they take some of that money and give back by raising workers' wages?"

In an effort to monitor this growing gap, the Securities and Exchange Commission has required companies to report executive compensation since 2017. That regulatory filing usually occurs around this time in the spring, providing several additional examples. 

According to NBC News:

Acuity Brands, an industrial technology company, paid its CEO, Neil M. Ashe, $21 million last year, or 2,316 times the median employee's pay...

Lawrence Culp of General Electric got $73.2 million last year, the lion's share of it in stock awards that vest when performance and service requirements are met. The value of the package put Culp at 1,357 times the median GE worker...

Starbucks, the ubiquitous coffee shop chain, paid its CEO, Kevin Johnson, $14.7 million last year. That was 1,211 times the pay of its median employee, the company's filings noted.

Many economists, including the Institute for Policy Studies' Sarah Anderson—who testified last month at a Senate Budget Committee Hearing on "the income and wealth inequality crisis in America" convened by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—attribute the worsening pay gap to the decades-long corporate assault on unions and the rise of stock-based compensation for CEOs.

Last month, Sanders unveiled the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act, a proposal to raise taxes on corporations that pay their CEOs over 50 times more than the median worker. The legislation "would incentivize corporations to both rein in pay at the top and lift up wages—all while generating an estimated $150 billion over 10 years that could be invested in ways that reduce inequality," as Anderson explained.

The U.S., Sanders warned when introducing his new bill, is "moving toward an oligarchic form of society where the very rich are doing phenomenally well, and working families are struggling in a way that we have not seen since the Great Depression." 

"At a time of massive income and wealth inequality," he added, "the American people are demanding that large, profitable corporations pay their fair share of taxes and treat their employees with the dignity and respect they deserve."

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