NEW YORK — As COVID-19 ravaged the world last year, CEOs’ big pay packages seemed to be under as much threat as everything else.
Fortunately for those CEOs, many had boards of directors willing to see the pandemic as an extraordinary event beyond their control. Across the country, boards made changes to the intricate formulas that determine their CEOs’ pay — and other moves — that helped make up for losses created by the crisis.
As a result, pay packages rose yet again last year for the CEOs of the biggest companies, even though the pandemic sent the economy to its worst quarter on record and slashed corporate profits around the world. The median pay package for a CEO at an S&P 500 company hit $12.7 million in 2020, according to data analyzed by Equilar for The Associated Press. That means half the CEOs in the survey made more, and half made less. It’s 5 percent more than the median pay for that same group of CEOs in 2019 and an acceleration from the 4.1 percent climb in last year’s survey.
At Advance Auto Parts, CEO Tom Greco’s pay for 2020 was in line to take a hit because of a mountain of pandemic-related costs. Extended sick-pay benefits and expenses for hand sanitizer and other safety equipment totaling $60 million dragged on two key measurements that help set his performance pay. But because the board’s compensation committee saw these costs as extraordinary and unanticipated, it excluded them from its calculations. That helped Greco’s total compensation rise 4.7 percent last year to $8.1 million.
At Carnival, the cruise operator gave stock grants to executives, in part to encourage its leaders to stick with the company as the pandemic forced it to halt sailings and furlough workers. For CEO Arnold Donald’s 2020 compensation, those grants were valued at $5.2 million, though their full value will ultimately depend on how the company performs on carbon reductions and other measures in coming years. That helped Donald receive total compensation valued at $13.3 million for the year, up 19 percent from a year earlier, even as Carnival swung to a $10.2 billion loss for the fiscal year.
Meanwhile, regular workers also saw gains, but not at the same rate as their bosses. And millions of others lost their jobs.
Wages and benefits for all workers outside the government rose just 2.6 percent last year. That’s according to U.S. government data that ignore the effect of workers shifting between different industries. It’s an important distinction because more lower-wage earners lost their jobs as the economy shut down than professionals who could work from home.
“This should have been a year for shared sacrifice,” said Sarah Anderson, who directs the global economy project at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. “Instead it became a year of shielding CEOs from risk while it was the frontline employees who paid the price.”
The AP’s compensation study included pay data for CEOs at S&P 500 companies who have served at least two full fiscal years at their companies, which filed proxy statements between Jan. 1 and April 30. It doesn’t include some highly paid CEOs who don’t fit that criteria. The pay figures for CEOs sometimes include grants of stock and options they may never receive unless they hit certain targets.
Last year’s 5 percent gain for median CEO pay masks how much variation in pay there was beneath the surface. Some companies thrived as a direct result of the pandemic. Sales boomed for Lowe’s amid a great nesting across the country, and CEO Marvin Ellison’s pay nearly doubled after its stock more than doubled the S&P 500’s total return through its fiscal year.
Overall, 61 percent of the 342 CEOs in this year’s survey did get a boost in compensation last year. That’s almost the exact same percentage as the 62 percent in 2019, when the economy and corporate profits were growing.