Fast food worker, retail clerks and hotel maids all over the United States may be rejoicing today So are a few highly-educated people who work in minimum wage jobs.
During the State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, pointing out that many live in or near poverty levels. Minimum wage workers currently earn about $14,500 a year if they work full-time, he said.
That increase if passed by Congress, could directly benefit one in 20 workers who earn hourly rates, or 3.8 million workers who were paid $7.25 an hour or less in 2011, the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The idea already has a slew of support: Campaigns to raise the minimum wage have been launched in Maryland, New York and other areas, and 19 states already set minimum wages above the federal level.
Then I wondered: Who are today’s minimum wage workers? And where do they work?
About half of all minimum wage workers are young – ages 16 to 24 – and two-thirds work part-time jobs, according to BLS data. Three-quarters are white. That means 3.0 million whites earn at or below minimum wages, with Latinos are the next largest group: 720,000 are at those low levels.
Some 2.2 million minimum wage workers are either in high school or are high school graduates with no college education, according to the BLS. (The split is even between those who have yet to earn a high school diploma and those who got one.)
Yet some are well-educated: 6.5 percent, or 279,000 people have a bachelor’s degree or more and earn basic wages. One in ten of those have earned a master’s or other advanced degree, according to the BLS. I picture them refilling fruit displays at Busch’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., after an HR manager told me about their highly educated job candidates who want to continue living in that pleasant college town.
The stereotype of the minimum wage worker flipping burgers and changing towels may be true: Half of them work in the leisure and hospitality field, which includes restaurants. More than one-fifth of that sector’s hourly staff earn basic wages – four times the concentration of all private sector workers. That’s 1.65 million people in food preparation and service jobs, one fourth of all such workers.
The highest concentration of minimum wage workers live in Georgia, Texas, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. Each of those states has about one and half times the rate of low-wage workers as the nation as a whole.
Even a few managers earn minimum wage: 48,000 people in the management business and financial operations occupations were paid the same rate as those they supervise!
So where are there a minimum of minimum wage workers? Mining, manufacturing and financial serves have hardly any. And only 2.2 percent of federal, state and local workers and 2.7 percent, or 157,000 people, in professional and business services are at the bottom rungs of pay. The average for all sectors is 5.2 percent of staffs paid minimum wage or lower.
President Obama also suggested indexing the minimum wage to inflation during his State of the Union Address. If the federal minimum wage had inched up at the same rate as the cost of living since 1968, it would be at $10.56 today, according to the National Employment Law Project, which applauded the president’s proposal.
Copyright 2013, Vickie Elmer