Workers Are Getting Basically Nothing From The Corporate Tax Windfall

Instead, shareholders are getting the bulk of the money.

Workers Are Getting Basically Nothing From The Corporate Tax Windfall
[Photo: Caiaimage/Chris Ryan/Getty Images]

Following last December’s corporate tax cuts, dozens of companies from AT&T to Walmart have announced bonuses and pay rises for their employees. But how much of the windfall is actually ending up in the hands of workers?


The answer is less than you might think, according to an analysis of the first 105 announcements. Just Capital, which tracks corporate performance on a range of corporate responsibility-type metrics, finds that just 6% of capital allotted so far is going to staff, while 58% is going to shareholders in the form of dividends, share buy-backs, or retained earnings.

And, of that 6% for workers, more than half is in the form of bonuses, meaning the transfers are set to be short-lived. If workers are getting at least some money from the tax cuts, it’s not necessarily in form of ongoing remuneration.

Home Depot is one company that’s promised bonuses but which is actually giving most of its savings to shareholders. The retailer announced in January that it was awarding bonuses on a sliding scale based on its associates’ length of service. Those with less than two years will get $200. Those with 15 to 19 years service will get $750.

That doesn’t sound bad. But, according to Just Capital, it’s not much in the grand scheme of things. When it calculates annual savings from corporate tax rates falling from 35% to 21%, and from offshore earnings repatriated at a one-time rate of 15.5% over five years, it expects Home Depot to save $1.4 billion a year. Its bonuses for front-line workers represent just 1% of that, even as shareholders stand to gain 99% of the pile.


Many other companies, including health insurer Humana, retailer Lowe’s, and Bank of America, are all paying 98% or 99% of their tax savings to their investors, according to the analysis. But not all companies are alike. Boeing and FedEx currently have no plans to reward to their stockholders. The aircraft maker is giving two-thirds of its savings to its workers in the form of workforce and workplace development.

Just Capital informs its research by asking Americans what they care most about when it comes to corporate behavior. Overwhelmingly, people say they most want companies to treat workers fairly, by paying reasonable wages and offering decent benefits. Its analyses have shown that retailers, in particular, fail to pay living wages allowing workers to meet their everyday needs. In that context, a one-time $250 bonus may not amount to much.

Martin Whittaker, Just Capital’s CEO, describes the tax cuts as a window into how corporations treat their stakeholders–how they prioritize shareholders versus customers, research and development teams, communities, and workers. Though preliminary, the analysis shows that many companies are trying to please Wall Street before other constituencies.

“It would seem the allocation is below the guidance that was given [before the tax cuts were passed],” Whittaker says, referring to rhetoric that the tax cuts were a boon to the American middle class.

Of course, if the tax cuts were really aimed at workers, as President Trump and other Republicans said, there were simpler ways of getting money to workers than passing it through the books of corporations. Congress could have simply sent checks to people’s homes, as it did in 2001. That way, there could be no argument over who was really benefitting.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.