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Best and Worst Bonuses of 2009

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I once worked for a newspaper in New Haven that gave us holiday bonuses in the form of gift certificates for turkeys at the local supermarket. The program was canceled after we all got together one year and gave our turkey certificates to striking workers at Yale.

Bonuses never did loom large in the newspaper business, where holiday surprises have tended to come more along the line of mass layoffs.

But even when I didn't get them, I was generally happy for people who did. Most of them aren't using them to buy a third vacation house. Hewitt Associates, a consulting firm that produces surveys on this sort of thing, said the median holiday bonus this year will only amount to about $250. And only 24 percent of firms are planning to give them out at all, down from 42 percent the year before.

It's the economy, of course. But rage over Wall Street excesses has also tainted the whole bonus concept.

To put the situation in perspective, I thought I'd rank some of the best-publicized bonuses that were given out in 2009, on a scale of one to ten. One would be a nod of affirmation, two is a shrug. By the time you get to ten, angry peasants are waving pitchforks and torches.

1. Army Enlistment Bonuses. (Signing up for a three-year stint as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist gets you $15,000. If you can speak Arabic, add $10,000.)

2. The $250,000 actor Matthew Fox got to extend his Lost contract.

3. $42,000 for players on the losing team in the Super Bowl.

4. $22,500 for players on the losing team in the Pro Bowl.

5. $1 million from Ford trucks for the top professional bull rider of the year.

6. Retention bonuses given to innocent bystanders in places like AIG's financial products unit, who have agreed to stay and unwind the mess left behind by their evil brethren, until everything is cleaned up and they become unemployed.

7. Retention bonus of $7,700 that was paid in March to a really excellent AIG kitchen worker.

8. Ridiculously large signing bonuses for the new brooms who are supposed to sweep out the old culture of excess, like the $1.95 million Ross J. Kari got for agreeing to become the new chief financial officer of Freddie Mac, which has received $51 billion in taxpayer bailout money.

9. Ridiculously large bonuses handed out by corporations that aren't on Wall Street.

10. Ridiculously large bonuses handed out by corporations that aren't on Wall Street that laid off a member of your family in 2009.