Road out of low-wage jobs looks like dead end

The na­tion’s strong la­bor mar­ket isn’t boost­ing 44% of U.S. work­ers, a study finds.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS -

Un­em­ploy­ment is hov­er­ing near a five-decade low, work­force par­tic­i­pa­tion is at the high­est level in six years and Fed­eral Re­serve Chair­man Jerome H. Pow­ell re­cently called the la­bor mar­ket “strong.”

Yet, 44% of Amer­i­cans ages 18 to 64 are low-wage work­ers with few prospects for im­prov­ing their lot, ac­cord­ing to a Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion re­port.

An es­ti­mated 53 mil­lion Amer­i­cans are earn­ing low wages, ac­cord­ing to the study. That num­ber is more than twice the num­ber of peo­ple in the 10 most pop­u­lous U.S. cities com­bined, the re­port notes.

The me­dian wage for those work­ers is $10.22 an hour and their an­nual pay is $17,950.

Al­though many are ben­e­fit­ing from high de­mand for la­bor, the data in­di­cated that not all new jobs are good, high-pay­ing po­si­tions.

The def­i­ni­tion of “lowwage” dif­fers from place to place. The au­thors de­fine low-wage work­ers as those who earn less than twothirds of the me­dian wage for full-time work­ers, ad­justed for the re­gional cost of liv­ing.

For in­stance, a worker would be con­sid­ered low wage in Beck­ley, W.Va., with earn­ings of $12.54 an hour or less, but in San Jose, Calif., the low wage bar rises to $20.02 an hour.

“We have the largest and long­est ex­pan­sion and job growth in mod­ern his­tory,” Marcela Es­co­bari, coau­thor of the re­port, said in a phone in­ter­view.

That ex­pan­sion “is show­ing up in very dif­fer­ent ways to half of the worker pop­u­la­tion that finds it­self un­able to move,” she said.

The mil­lions of Amer­i­cans in low-wage jobs are likely to stay there. Work­ers who make $10 to $15 an hour have a 52% chance of re­main­ing in that wage bracket when they switch jobs.

For mid­dle-wage work­ers, or those earn­ing $19 to $24 an hour, there’s a 46% chance that a job tran­si­tion would re­sult in lower pay. That’s bad news for the nearly 3.5 mil­lion work­ers who quit their jobs in Septem­ber alone.

The de­mo­graph­ics of low-wage work­ers span race, gen­der and ge­og­ra­phy, but women and mi­nor­ity groups are more likely to earn low wages.

Black work­ers are 32% more likely to earn low wages than whites, and Lati­nos are 41% more likely.

Nearly half of low-wage work­ers are con­cen­trated in just 10 oc­cu­pa­tions, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

The largest group is re­tail sales­peo­ple (4.5 mil­lion), fol­lowed by in­for­ma­tion and records clerks (2.9 mil­lion), cooks and food prepa­ra­tion work­ers (2.6 mil­lion), build­ing clean­ers and jan­i­tors (2.5 mil­lion), ma­te­rial movers (2.5 mil­lion) and food and bev­er­age servers (2.4 mil­lion).

Round­ing out the top-10 list are con­struc­tion trade work­ers (2.3 mil­lion), ma­te­rial dis­patch­ers and dis­trib­u­tors (1.9 mil­lion), mo­tor ve­hi­cle op­er­a­tors (1.8 mil­lion) and per­sonal care and ser­vice providers (1.8 mil­lion).

As for the fu­ture, the main con­cern is dis­place­ment, Es­co­bari said.

“Both the in­dus­tries that are grow­ing and the in­dus­tries that are shrink­ing are low wage,” and avail­able work “is go­ing to be more low-wage work,” she said.

Es­co­bari and coau­thors Ian Seyal and Michael Meaney sug­gest a va­ri­ety of po­ten­tial solutions to al­low low-wage work­ers to avoid be­com­ing trapped in those po­si­tions.

This would in­clude ef­forts that match train­ing to lo­cal and na­tional in­dus­try needs rather than a one­size-fits-all ap­proach.

“Pol­i­cy­mak­ers can de­sign reskilling pro­grams that tap into lo­cal tal­ent pools and fa­cil­i­tate work­ers’ re­al­is­tic up­ward tran­si­tions into grow­ing oc­cu­pa­tions,” the re­port says.

Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

A UNION rally in Los An­ge­les. The de­mo­graph­ics of low-wage work­ers span race, gen­der and ge­og­ra­phy.

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