Retailers and policymakers are finally hearing workers’ call for wage hikes, but it may be a little too late.
Low-wage industries in the United States are growing rapidly, but wages aren't. A new report from the National Employment Law Project, a wage advocacy group, found that six of the occupations that are expected to grow the fastest in the coming years are also jobs that pay a median wage of under $15 per hour -- which is barely enough to make ends meet.
These high-growth fields, according to the NELP report, include retail sales employees, food and service workers, nursing assistants, laborers and freight movers, personal care aids, janitors and cleaners (excluding housekeepers and maids).
“These are jobs that aren’t going anywhere,” said Irene Tung, one of the report’s co-authors along with Paul Sonn and Yannet Lathrop. “You can’t outsource fast food in China. You have to grapple with that. This is where we have to lift wages if we want to begin to rebuild the disappearing middle class in the country.”
Around 46 percent of workers earning less than $15 an hour are over 35 years old, the NELP's report found. “There’s a common perception that these occupations are for teenagers,” Tung told The Huffington Post. “But there are a lot of people spending decades in these jobs and supporting families. It calls into question the kind of economy we want.”
As the baby-boom generation ages, one of the biggest-growing sectors is personal care for the elderly. Wages there are stagnant and turnover is high. “It’s hard to retain good personal care aides because the wages are so low,” Tung said.
The report also notes that the percentages of women and African-Americans making less than $15 per hour are disproportionately large. Female workers make up 48 percent of the total U.S. workforce but represent 54 percent of those making under $15 an hour, per the NELP. African-Americans, who comprise 12 percent of the total workforce, represent 15 percent of those making less than $15.
Workers have become increasingly vocal in their fight for better wages, and they're gradually effecting change. McDonald’s bumped up hourly wages to $9.90 earlier this month, though this applied only to a fraction of employees.
Many workers called the raise insufficient and are continuing to call on McDonald's and other corporate giants to hike wages. On Wednesday, a strike organized by the group Fight for $15, which advocates for a minimum hourly wage of $15 for fast-food employees, began in cities across the U.S and expanded to include demonstrations for other low-earning workers.
In February, retail giant Walmart increased wages to $9 for its lowest-paid workers. Rivals such as T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and Target soon followed suit. But many of these low-income workers rely on government assistance programs, and $9 an hour still forces them to remain tied to Medicaid and food stamps, according to a study by the advocacy group Americans for Tax Fairness.
“Workers have been organizing, and they’ve been able to elevate the conversation about wages in this country,” Tung said. “But it’s still a drop in the bucket. Nine dollars an hour is less than $25,000 a year for full-time workers, and that’s nowhere near enough for them to survive.”
The public is responding in turn and putting pressure on lawmakers. Seattle is currently transitioning to a $15 minimum wage, a year after the city first announced its commitment to a living wage for workers. Voters in San Francisco, as well as Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, approved wage increases last year.