Two-thirds of low-wage corporations that cut worker pay in 2021 spent billions on stock buybacks.

Washington, D.C. — A new Institute for Policy Studies report reveals staggering stats on how low-wage corporations have continued to pump up CEO pay during the pandemic. The report focuses on the 300 U.S. corporations that had the lowest median pay in 2020.

Key findings:

  • The CEO-worker pay gap at low-wage corporations grew even wider in 2021
    • At 106 of the 300 firms, median worker pay did not keep pace with inflation.
    • The average gap between CEO and median worker pay in our sample jumped to 670-to-1, up from 604-to-1 in 2020. Forty-nine firms had ratios above 1,000-to-1.
    • CEO pay at the 300 firms increased by $2.5 million to an average of $10.6 million, while median worker pay increased by only $3,556 to an average of $23,968.
  • Low-wage firms that cut worker pay in 2021 spent billions on stock buybacks
    • At the 106 companies in our sample where median worker pay did not keep pace with inflation, 67 spent money on stock buybacks, a maneuver that inflates executive stock-based pay. These repurchases totaled $43.7 billion.
    • The biggest buyback firm: Lowe’s. With the $13 billion the retailer spent on share repurchases, the company could have given each of its 325,000 employees a $40,000 raise. Instead, median pay at the company fell 7.6 percent to $22,697.
  • Taxpayer dollars are fueling corporations with extreme CEO-worker pay gaps
    • Of the 300 companies in our sample, 40 percent received federal contracts between October 1, 2019 and May 1, 2022. The combined value of these contracts: $37.2 billion.
    • At these low-wage contractors, the average CEO-worker pay ratio hit 571-to-1 in 2021. Only 6 of the 119 contractors had pay gaps of less than 100-to-1.
    • Maximus, a company that manages federal student debts and Medicare call centers, took in more federal contracts than any other low-wage firm in our sample, with $12.3 billion. In 2021, the Maximus CEO collected $7.9 million in compensation, 208 times the firm’s median paycheck. The company’s call center workers have staged recent walkouts over pay and benefits.
    • Amazon, the second-largest federal contractor in our sample, amassed $10.3 billion, with most of this coming from providing web services for the Department of Defense. Amazon’s new CEO raked in compensation worth $212.7 million last year, 6,474 times the company’s median pay and 961 times the secretary of defense’s salary.

“CEOs’ pandemic greed grab has sparked outrage among Americans across the political spectrum,” notes report lead author Sarah Anderson, director of the IPS Global Economy Project and a veteran executive compensation analyst. She cites one recent poll showing that 87 percent of Americans see the growing gap between CEO and worker pay as a problem for the country.

This 28th edition of the annual IPS Executive Excess series ends with a number of policy solutions, including actions President Biden could take without waiting for Congress.

“The president could wield the power of the public purse by introducing new standards making it hard for companies with huge CEO-worker pay gaps to land a lucrative federal contract,” Anderson points out. The Congressional Progressive Caucus called on Biden to take such action in March.

The report also urges the president to ban top executives at federal contractors from selling their personal stock for a multi-year period after a buyback.

The full report, “Executive Excess 2022,” is available at:


The lead author Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-edits the IPS web site She has been the lead author on all 28 of the Institute’s annual Executive Excess reports.