Since the “Great Recession,” both optical retail owners/managers and employees have been sensitive to wages. The owners/managers are concerned about this because profits were hit pretty badly, and employees are because their income directly affects how they support their families. I recently spoke with a high-level optical manager who said he had to pay some of his dispensing staff as much as $40,000 a year, which he deemed a lot of money. Interestingly, I heard the exact same comment at Vision Expo West from a top optometric consultant. This made me think: How much salary is too much?

This is a tough question because there are some significant variables, but here’s a perspective you’ve probably never considered. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) classifies a family of four in poverty with an income of $23,850 a year or lower. That equates to slightly less than $12 an hour (40 hours/week for 50 weeks). This means if an office pays one of its staff $12 an hour, and that person is a single parent supporting three children, she’s literally at the poverty level.

Most experts describe “near poverty” as an income falling between the poverty level and twice that amount. In this example, it falls between $23,850 and $47,700. People in the near-poverty sector don’t save money and are much more likely to fall into poverty if they lose their job or are hit by a large bill. The $40,000 salary mentioned above equates to $20 an hour, which years ago may have seemed high, but it places this staff member in the near-poverty category, which is something to think about.

One of the most pervasive problems in the optical retail sector is finding and retaining qualified clinical support and dispensing staff. It’s a well-known fact that workers seek the best-paying careers and highest-paying jobs in those careers, so perhaps it’s time to rethink staff salaries. I’m not suggesting giving everyone a raise for no reason. Quite the contrary, I believe that compensation should be based on performance. But if performance expectations are so low that you feel compelled to pay wages that place people into the near poverty category, perhaps expectations are far too low. The way to solve that problem is to have a clear job description and performance expectations that are measurable and reviewed monthly (more often is even better). With a written document like this along with periodic reviews and staff meetings, you’ll feel more comfortable paying a higher salary.

The next time you’re working on salaries, think about the consequences of what you’re offering. Higher salaries can attract and retain better employees. Keeping them out of the poverty zone would surely be a major benefit for them-and consequently for you.

email me at ed@visioncareproducts.com


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