Employee-stock ownership plans boost productivity, increase retirement savings

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin

Conversing about capital: Congressman Paul Tonko, right, talks with Ray Mountain, of Atlantic Plywood Corporation, in Guilderland. Tonko was at the Northeastern Industrial Park to hear about the company’s employee-stock ownership plan, which gives workers the opportunity to share more in the company’s success.

GUILDERLAND — As the American middle class shrinks, with workers’ wages barely above what they were in 1973, and with corporations siphoning off a greater share of the country’s income than almost any other time in generations, politicians and policy makers are looking for ways to place more of those gains back into the pockets of workers.

Only recently, amid record-low unemployment, have workers’ wages climbed back to pre-Great Recession levels, but the rate at which wages grow still has not caught up to its pre-2001 recession levels. The bottom 90 percent of American households, according to the Federal Reserve, are poorer today than they were prior to the Great Recession. That’s because fewer own homes — which have seen a 26-percent increase in prices, from their lowest point of the Great Recession — and fewer own stocks — with prices that have exploded by more than 160 percent.

One long-term remedy that has allowed workers to share in a company’s success has been an employee-stock ownership plan, or ESOP.

An ESOP, according to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, “is a retirement plan in which the company contributes its stock (or money to buy its stock) to the [retirement] plan for the benefit of the company’s employees.”

Congressman Paul Tonko was in Guilderland on Monday, at Atlantic Plywood Corporation, a company with an employee-stock ownership plan, to discuss the benefits of such plans and why he is looking to sign on to a bill that would make it easier for corporations to transition to employee-ownership and set up their own ESOPs.

“I think, it offers opportunity for employees to strengthen their retirement, and have more job security,” said Tonko, a Democrat. According to Tonko, a worker in an employee-stock ownership plan is three to four times less likely to lose his or her job.

The Promotion and Expansion of Private Employee Ownership Act is sponsored by Representative David Reichert, a Republican from the state of Washington, and has bipartisan support in the House. This is the fourth time that Reichert has introduced the bill; in three previous attempts, it did not make it out of committee. In the Senate, the bill has had the same fate.

According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, a not-for-profit, there are about 11 million active (14 million, in total) private-sector workers covered by about 6,700 employee-stock ownership plans; in New York State, about 1.1 million workers participate in 322 employee-stock ownership plans.

Three New York companies are among America’s 100 largest employee-owned companies: Lewis Tree Care in Rochester, an ESOP with 4,000 workers; KPH Healthcare  Services, an ESOP in Gouverneur with 3,860 workers; and Cooperative Home Care Associates, a cooperative in the Bronx with 2,000 workers.

Only three states — Illinois, Texas, and California — have more ESOPs than New York, according to the National Center for Employee Ownership; and just one state has more participants, Arkansas, with 1.6 million — which can be a little deceiving because Walmart has an employee-stock ownership plan.

Employees of companies with an ESOP have more than twice the average total retirement savings as those who work at non-ESOP companies, $170,000 compared to $80,339, according to the Employee-Owned S Corporations of America, the industry’s lobbyist.

Atlantic Plywood Corporation is a distributor of hardwood plywood, lumber, and panel products. It opened in 1974; and had been employee-owned since 2008.

In January of this year, Atlantic Plywood Corporation was bought by Parksite Incorporated, a distributor of construction and specialty building materials. Parksite has been owned by its employees since 1998.

Parksite, based in Illinois, now has 650 employees; it gained 220 when it purchased Atlantic. In New York, the company has 100 workers; 29 are employed directly by Parksite and 71 work for Atlantic Plywood.

The majority of Atlantic’s 71 employees work in Guilderland’s Northeastern Industrial Park, according to Elizabeth Wheeler, communications manager for Parksite.

When Parksite purchased the company, it meant that Atlantic’s employees’ shares were bought out and the workers were then enrolled in Parksite’s employee-stock ownership plan, according to Wheeler.

Parksite is a privately held company.

To determine its worth, Wheeler said, the company is evaluated by an outside consulting firm, Duff and Phelps, in conjunction with a trustee of the employee-stock ownership plan.

The consultant, she said, in order to determine the company’s value, will, among other things, study the construction-material market; compare Parksite to similar companies; and examine the company’s sales and debt.

Parksite, in its most recent valuation, according to Wheeler, was valued at $127,000 per share.

The company offers both an employee-stock ownership plan and a 401k retirement plan. “So not everyone’s eggs are in one basket,” Wheeler said.

The employee-benefit package has been a major selling-point for prospective warehouse workers, said Ray Mountain, of Atlantic Plywood Corporation.

He then illustrated his point.

Financial advisors, according to Mountain, say that 15 percent of an employee’s salary should go toward his retirement.

“That’s hard to do on a working [class] salary,” he said.

The Parksite employee-stock ownership plan, Mountain said, gives employees 7 percent of their salary, more if the company is doing well.

The company will also match half of an employee’s contribution to his or her 401K plan, if the employee contributes the maximum limit, 6 percent of his or her salary, Mountain said.

So, an employee working for Parksite/Atlantic, according to Mountain, would hit that 15-percent salary-savings retirement goal by contributing only 6 percent out-of-pocket.

“The evidence is clear that capital-sharing arrangements work well for everyone. Workers with greater property in firms are more likely to stay with their company, work harder, make more suggestions, and enjoy better fixed pay and working conditions,” according to professors Joseph Blasi, Richard Freeman, and Douglas Kruse, authors of “The Citizen’s Share,” a book that examines the benefits of employee-owned businesses. “Also, firms with profit sharing tend to be more profitable and productive than similar firms without sharing programs. More than sixty studies document a positive association on average between company performance and the existence of profit sharing, gain sharing, and employee stock ownership programs. Firms that share ownership and profits enjoy about a 4.5 percent boost in productivity, and employee ownership firms have greater survival rates and are less likely to lay off workers in recessions.”

The public sector employs about 22 million, according to the Federal Reserve. Nine in 10 public-sector workers have access to a retirement plan, and nearly the same amount participate in some kind of plan, according to the Pension Rights Center.

There are about 127 million private-sector workers in the country, according to the Federal Reserve. About two-thirds of those workers have access to a retirement plan, according to the Pension Rights Center, a not-for-profit consumer advocacy organization; about 75 percent of those workers participate in a retirement plan.

Union membership — once the great equalizer in the battle for capital between worker and employer — in the private sector, gives 92 percent of workers access to retirement benefits; 64 percent of non-union workers have access, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But only 6.5 percent of America’s private-sector workers belong to a union.

However, New York has the highest union membership rate in the country, about 24 percent; although, about only 17 percent of the private sector is unionized.