Chief Operating Officers Got More Bonuses, Bigger Paychecks In 2010, Study Finds

CEOs aren't the only ones whose paychecks keep getting bigger.

For COOs, or chief operating officers, 2010 was a very good year. Many COOs experienced a sizable jump in compensation during that time, even as the economy tottered and millions struggled to find work, according to new research.

Though executive compensation took a dip in the immediate wake of the financial crisis, as public outrage spiked and the government took steps to regulate corporate behavior, the new findings reinforce the impression that business leaders wasted no time getting their pay packages back up to size.

The research, compiled by Equilar, an executive compensation data firm, looks at the compensation for nearly 300 chief operating officers in 2010. Equilar found that the median compensation among COOs rose by 30 percent in that year -- climbing to $2.2 million in 2010 from $1.7 million in 2009.

One reason was that bonuses got bigger, Equilar found, and there were more of them. The median bonus for chief operating officers jumped 27 percent, to about $542,000 in 2010 from $425,000 in 2009. And 93 percent of COOs in Equilar's study got bonuses in 2010, compared with just 84 percent in 2009.

Equilar's findings recall other reports of corporate pay skyrocketing while middle-class wages remain relatively flat. Earlier this year, USA Today reported that median CEO pay rose by 27 percent in 2010, while compensation for private-sector workers increased by just 2.1 percent.

A practice known as "peer benchmarking," recently covered by The Washington Post, has likely contributed to the rising tide of executive pay. In an effort to stay competitive, many companies set their CEO's compensation based on what other companies are paying their own CEOs -- meaning that paychecks for those at the top are simply getting larger and larger.

In general, the highest-paid Americans are seeing their salaries accelerate at a historic pace. A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office found that the highest 1 percent of earners in the U.S. have seen their incomes nearly triple since 1979, while the incomes of all other workers have risen only modestly -- a phenomenon that one economist characterized as "Gilded Age levels of inequality."

While COO compensation was climbing in 2010, more than two million people fell below the poverty line, bringing the number of Americans in poverty to a record 46 million, according to the Census Bureau.