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Low-Wage Workers Say It's Not Getting Better (Good Policy Would Help)

Amy Traub

It’s not getting better. That’s the key finding of a new survey of low-wage workers out yesterday from the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago. Eighty-one percent of low-wage employees surveyed said their family’s financial situation was the same or worse than it had been four years ago, while 64 percent reported that their wages have been stagnant or declined over the past five years. The survey queried 1,606 workers earning $35,000 or less annually.

According to the survey:

Less than half of lower-wage workers agree that their employer offers good benefits (48%) or that they are paid well for their job (32%). Only 30 percent of lower-wage workers report receiving any promotion to a higher position that pays more while working for their current employer. Although the proportion of workers who have received a promotion increases with the length of time the worker has been with their employer, only 41 percent of lower-wage workers who have worked for the employer for 11 years or more report receiving a promotion to a higher position that pays more…

Many workers view their current jobs as a dead-end. Half of lower-wage workers report only a little confidence or no confidence at all that their current job will help them achieve their long-term career goals… When asked: “How much opportunity do you think there is for advancement or promotion to a higher position that pays more?,” 67 percent responded a little or no opportunity.

Not surprisingly, 71 percent of low-wage workers worry about not being able to pay their bills.

The picture of a stagnating and pessimistic low-wage workforce is bleak. Worse still: 70 percent of job growth is taking place in lower wage industries, according to University of Chicago’s Trevor Tompson.

Yet this isn’t necessarily how it has to be. In her recent study of the retail industry, one of the nation’s largest low-wage sectors, my colleague Catherine Ruetschlin found that even a modest wage increase would lift families out of poverty, boost the national economy, and still keep prices low for consumers. Employers would benefit from lower employee turnover and higher productivity.

Employers in retail and other low-wage industries could do this on their own—and yet most haven’t. So it’s a good thing that policies are falling into place, albeit very slowly, to lift standards for low-wage employees. As Demos fellow Sharon Lerner noted this week, laws to guarantee paid sick days to all workers are advancing in the cities of Portland Oregon and Philadelphia, while the Healthy Families Act  to provide paid sick leave nationally was just reintroduced in the U.S. House and Senate. In Vermont, low-wage home care workers won the opportunity to organize for better wages and benefits. New York State may be set to raise its minimum wage although the deal has serious shortcomings, including a failure to index the minimum to inflation and— most troubling—a last-minute loophole cutting low-wage tipped workers out of the increase. And back in the U.S. Congress, legislation to extend protections to part-time workers in the areas of employer-provided health insurance, family and medical leave, and pension plans was introduced last month.

Conservatives argue that inequality isn’t a problem, and that America’s low-wage workers actually have it pretty good.  But when we listen to low-wage workers—most of whom would warm conservative hearts by agreeing that they themselves bear most of the responsibility for getting ahead in their careers—more than two in five report that “their employer treats them like they could be easily replaced.” That loss of dignity may speak louder than the other statistics put together.