Lee Schafer
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With the COVID-19 pandemic gathering momentum last month and air travel sharply slowing, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian was among the industry’s executives to announce a cut in their own pay, in Bastian’s case taking his salary to zero for 6 months.

This was soon followed by Walt Disney Co. cutting salaries down to vice presidents and Comcast Corp.’s top officers promising to donate their salaries to those most affected by the pandemic.

Salary cuts for top executives of Minnesota companies have come already, too, for the CEO of Cardiovascular Systems, Inc. and the executive team of Deluxe Corp., among others. Leaders of large nonprofits are also taking them.

Context matters, of course. The owner of a restaurant or another small business closed by the pandemic likely took a bigger cut in pay already — to zero.

Yet the biggest factor when looking at news of executive pay cuts is that pay for CEOs and other top executives has galloped so far ahead of what rank-and-file workers’ pay that it’s difficult to see the leaders’ cuts as a meaningful sacrifice.

In the case of Delta’s Bastian, his $900,000 regular salary for the last fully reported year worked out to be about 6% of his total pay, which was about 184 times the median annual pay for Delta’s whole workforce.

That CEO pay ratio of 184 times median pay, by the way, is not all that high. At Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group, for example, it topped 300 as of 2018.

Pay cuts for senior executives happened during the last downturn, too, the Great Recession of the 2000s. “CEOs See Pay Fall Again,” said the Wall Street Journal in early 2010, as median CEO total pay at 200 large American companies declined in 2009 for the second straight year.

It turned out that median CEO compensation declined not even 1%, to around $7 million. Meanwhile, in that very painful year, the national unemployment rate peaked at 10%.

While it’s never going to be possible to see a small cut on $7 million in annual pay as painful, there is a case for these cuts as one part of an authentic leadership response to crisis.

It starts with the fact that cutting salaries saves money. The C-suite folks collect a lot in stock-based pay, but the salary comes the same way as everyone else’s, in cash, leaving the corporate checking account in time for the twice-monthly direct deposits.

In the spring of 2020, managers must conserve cash. Noncash expenses (or gains) really don’t matter.

It’s why we’ve seen companies push out spending on big-ticket items, even though the expenses recognized on the books might be spread over years, or borrow money on existing credit lines just to build cash.

Atlanta-based Delta, which still feels a little like a Minnesota airline because of its presence at MSP, is clearly in crisis. Amid an unheard-of collapse in demand for airline travel, routes have been discontinued, equipment idled and capital spending pushed out or canceled.

Delta took steps to reduce the hours of workers, too, including asking employees to sign up for unpaid leave. More than 20,000 have.

By cutting his own salary, Bastian freed up the money to pay maybe a dozen more Delta employees through the next six months. That clearly can’t hurt.

What seemed to be a stronger case was the thinking behind the executive pay cuts at Deluxe Corp., which disclosed in a securities filing late last month that executive officers would be taking a 20% cut to salaries through the end of June, including for CEO Barry McCarthy.

As McCarthy explained last week, it wasn’t really a separate decision to cut senior executive pay, but part of a far broader approach to dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His story began with what’s happened since McCarthy took over in late 2018, to make the company’s employees and units really become one company, with lots of different products and services, rather than a collection of independently minded businesses.

Shoreview-based Deluxe Corp. still serves financial institutions and consumers with checks, its traditional business, but it also provides payment services and other products to millions of business customers.

As part of this one Deluxe initiative, the company last year granted all 6,500 or so employees Deluxe stock.

That’s how McCarthy explained the 20% reduction salary for executive staff, one logical outcome of thinking as one company where everybody’s now an owner. And it’s not just top executives taking cuts, as all salaried workers took a 20% reduction, through the end of the second quarter in June.

Like other executives, McCarthy can’t be sure how the economy fares, but the June period was picked as it’s clear the second quarter is going to be much worse than anything like a normal recession.

In addition to the cuts for salaried staff, McCarthy described some of what he called “rolling furloughs” in parts of the company that “just didn’t have any work” as demand for what they did simply stopped. In those cases, even workers with sharply reduced hours are still being paid enough to remain on all the company benefits plans.

Deluxe has not laid off people. At least twice in a half-hour telephone call, McCarthy ticked off the list of constituencies of Deluxe, once slowing down to make sure he got them in the right order. It’s employees, then customers, then shareholders and communities.

“We just got to get everybody at our company across to the other side,” McCarthy said. “We love our fellow Deluxers and when we get to the other side of this and this all starts to recover, we don’t want to have to go try to find new people. We like the ones we have. We want to keep them with us.”