A Look at Poverty-Wage Jobs in Pennsylvania

In this year's State of Working Pennsylvania, we explored the prevalence of poverty-wage jobs in the commonwealth. 

We define poverty-wage jobs as those paying hourly wages that would not be sufficient for a full-time (40 hours a week), year-round (52 weeks) worker to earn an income greater than the poverty line for a family of four with two children. 

In 2011 dollars, the poverty wage was $10.97 an hour or less. At this wage, a worker employed full-time year-round would earn $22,811. Just under 24% of Pennsylvania workers earned poverty wages last year.

Figure 3.1 (above) presents the change over time in the share of workers by gender and race with poverty-wage jobs. The share of white women in poverty-wage jobs declined from more than 40% in the early 1980s to 27% by 2011. In 1979, 41% of black women in Pennsylvania were employed in poverty-wage jobs, and by 2011 just under 30% were. 

Table 3.2 (below) shows the share of workers in poverty-wage jobs by hours of work, union status, occupation and industry. 

Almost half (46%) of workers with a poverty-wage job worked part-time; 57% of workers with poverty-wage jobs were in service and sales occupations; and seven in 10 poverty-wage jobs are located in just three industries — leisure and hospitality, wholesale and retail trade, and education and health services. 

Over the weekend, Susan Lambert of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago published a New York Times op-ed detailing the consequences of a rise in "scheduling availability" as a human capital characteristic for women at the top and bottom of the labor market. Lambert argues that low-wage workers are increasingly expected to be available to work on short notice and at irregular times:

Rather than being long and relentless, work hours in hourly jobs, especially low-level ones, are often scarce, fluctuating and unpredictable. Sales associates and restaurant servers might be scheduled for 7 hours one week and 32 the next. Hotel housekeepers might work Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday one week, and then Sunday, Thursday and Saturday the following week. Schedules are often posted just a few days in advance. And women in hourly jobs are likely to have less input than men in determining their work schedules, according to national surveys.

The lack of stability is especially hard on parents. Unpredictable work schedules leave them scrambling to arrange child care and reluctant to volunteer for school events or to schedule doctor’s appointments. They make it tough to establish the household routines that experts tell us are essential for healthy child development, like bedtime rituals, homework monitoring and family meal times. Unstable hours also result in unstable earnings, a nightmare for parents on tight budgets.

Well-educated women have benefited from the growing gap between workers who have college degrees and those who don’t. But low-paid women have been left vulnerable by cuts to safety net programs. In 2011, nearly half of the households headed by single mothers who worked part-time or part-year were poor (46.8 percent), compared with 8.9 percent of households headed by single mothers who worked full-time, year round.

Lambert closes her op-ed by arguing in favor of using the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to establish minimum weekly hours.

Over at MomsRising, Joan C. Williams of the University of California Hastings Law School argues that while we wait for FLSA reform, employers could be educated on tools to provide better work-life balance, reducing employee turnover and absenteeism. 

What I’ve proposed is software that will allow an employer to achieve “schedule equilibrium”: the point at which there’s the tightest fit possible between labor supply and labor demand without driving up turnover and absenteeism. To say this differently, the goal is to drive down front-end labor costs to the maximum extent possible without driving up back-end labor costs. Such software would make it easy for employers to see that it does not help their bottom line to have schedules that ignore the realities of their workers’ lives. You’ve got to run your company with the workforce you have, not the workforce you wish you had.

Other best practices also could make a lot of difference. What about a tool employers could use to identify the 80% of hours that are stable from week to week (or whatever the percentage happens to be), so the employer could post those hours as a permanent schedule and then have a different system for staffing the remaining 20% of the hours that are unavoidably unstable?

Professor Williams is describing what we at the Keystone Research Center sometimes call high-road employment practices.  These are ways of managing your workforce that are both profitable for employers but also beneficial to workers. Unfortunately, high-road employers remain uncommon in the U.S. It can be difficult to get employers to pursue a high-road business model without the external pressure of a third party, like a union.

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