Low wages in Mesa County argue for a living-wage law
Both the Greg Ruland story in Sunday’s Daily Sentinel and the Sentinel’s editorial on the wages paid in Mesa County make the point that low wages are a fundamental economic problem in Mesa County.
Chamber of Commerce President Dianne Schwenke told Sentinel reporter Greg Ruland, “We have had historically and, unfortunately, still have wages that are considerably lower than some other similar-sized communities and yet our cost of living is high because we live in Colorado.”
But this is not just another consequence of the boom-and-bust western Colorado economy. Low-wage jobs are the economic result of structural changes in the American economy that may be irreversible, at least in the near future.
Oxfam America reported in late 2012, “While the president can rightfully claim that nearly five million private-sector jobs have been created on his watch, what we don’t see in the numbers is that a disturbingly high proportion of these are less than desirable jobs paying less than livable wages.”
The result of low wages in Mesa County, Schwenke reports, is that many people in the county are forced to work “two or three jobs” in order to survive. “And that,” she said “is not a situation we want our citizens to be in.”
Schwenke’s response to this untenable situation for low-wage workers is economic development. “At the end of the day,” Schwenke says, “we need to work harder to bring in the types of employers who pay higher wages.”
In this case, hard work is unlikely to produce the desired result.
According to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, “Jobs are slowly returning to America, but most of them pay lousy wages and low (or) non-existent benefits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage — like serving customers at big-box retailers and fast-food chains. That’s why the median wage keeps dropping, especially for the 80 percent of the workforce that’s paid by the hour.”
Luring enough high-paying, high-tech jobs to Mesa County to make a significant dent in these low-wage job numbers is unlikely. Based on the numbers quoted in the Ruland story, we are talking about many thousands of low-wage workers in Mesa County.
Increasingly, these low-wage jobs are becoming permanent. According to Reich, “These workers are not teenagers. Most have to support their families.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of fast-food workers is over 28; and women, who comprise two-thirds of the industry, are over 32. The median age of big-box retail workers is over 30.”
A few of these workers might find new jobs for which they are qualified or can be retrained for, but many workers currently holding jobs in food service, janitorial services, home care, store clerking, office work, agriculture and other traditionally low-end jobs face an employment future not substantially different from their present.
According to the Pew Charitable Trust, “Americans raised at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to remain there themselves as adults. Forty-three percent of those who start in the bottom are stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle quintile. Only 4 percent of adults raised in the bottom make it all the way to the top, showing that the “rags-to-riches” story is more often found in Hollywood than in reality.”
While helping the capable and worthy out of the low-wage trap is an appropriate goal for Mesa County and Grand Junction, it should not be an excuse for ignoring those destined to fill those jobs for the foreseeable future, if not in perpetuity.
With President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise the national minimum wage stuck in Congress, the only prospect of improving the lot of the low-wage earners in Mesa County lies with local authorities.
Certainly Mesa County needs to help those who can escape the low-wage trap, but it should not ignore those whose future is less bright.
Since the federal government has failed to raise the minimum wage, local government must fill the gap by enacting, as many cities and counties around the country have already done, a living-wage county ordinance to bring up the bottom.