Shaky ground

by David Forbes May 28, 2015

Federal statistics puncture myths about Asheville’s wages, which are staying stagnant, rising slowly or even declining in key sectors as the cost of living sharply increases

Above: The skyline of downtown Asheville. Photo by Max Cooper.

Every May, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics releases detailed breakdowns of pay for every area in the country, including states, counties and metropolitan areas. The Occupational Employment Statistics are one of the most in-depth surveys on pay available. It includes Asheville, and the latest numbers, released for May 2014, provide some interesting information when compared to the same results from a year prior.

In a city where much discussion about pay revolves around hearsay (“I know a restaurant owner, and they say they pay their employees well”), booster P.R. or after-work confessions among friends (“our pay hasn’t gone up in four years but I’m worried I’ll be fired if I gripe about it”) the numbers can provide some insight into what pay in our city and area actually looks like.

By this point the rising cost of living is no secret, with city officials dubbing the housing shortage a “crisis,” the living wage necessary to make ends meet shooting up and studies showing that Ashevillians take home less than those in other cities in the region and that, by some measures, we live in one of the least affordable places in the country.

At the same time, the city’s going through a period of considerable economic growth as key sectors like tourism, the restaurant industry and hotels are booming. Asheville also, in terms of unemployment, weathered the recession better than many other cities in the state. By conventional wisdom, this should mean things are relatively rosy.

Notably, the BLS numbers measure median pay, meaning half the wages in a sector or a job are lower, half higher. Median, while not perfect, is generally a better measure than an average because it’s not pulled up as much by a few higher-earning positions. A hotel, for example, can boast a relatively high average pay with the number pulled up by a parcel of well-paying management jobs, even if its desk clerks and housekeepers bring in well below the living wage.

The BLS looks at the Asheville metropolitan area, including Buncombe, Madison, Henderson and Haywood counties, though a huge share of that economic activity is clustered in and around the city of Asheville. In the metro area there were 175,230 jobs in May 2014, up from 171,890 a year before. The median pay for this workforce — once you include everyone from janitors to CEOs — was $14.55 an hour, up slightly from $14.41 a year before.

Diving deeper into the numbers, there’s some even more disturbing news than a so-so pay increase in the face of rapidly-increasing cost of living. While some sectors show gains, an array of major sectors showed stagnant or even declining pay. Ashevillians in jobs as diverse as waiters, construction workers, firefighters, beat cops, housekeepers and educators — just to name a few — actually saw their pay go down over the past year.

Waiting for hospitality

It’s worth starting with one of Asheville’s major sectors: food service. Asheville’s food service sector employs everyone from waiters at the city’s priciest restaurants to fast food workers, a total of 23,370 jobs. By all signs, it’s booming, with old restaurants expanding, new ones opening up and Asheville’s tourism bigger than ever.

And despite all that, wages went down. In May 2013 the median food sector pay was $9.07 an hour. A year later, it dropped to $8.97.

The idea of droves of waiters bringing in $20 an hour due to a booming tourism trade is a flat-out myth, according to the numbers. When the tips are tallied, Asheville’s waiters actually bring in pay closer to minimum wage than a living wage. Their pay also went down during the past year, from $8.86 an hour to $8.71. Despite all the Beer City U.S.A. publicity and a growing bar scene, bartenders also took a tumble, going from $8.73 to $8.62. The back of the house jobs fared a little better, with cooks and dishwashers both seeing a slight increase, but overall pay in this major economic sector was down.

In a collaboration with the Asheville Citizen-Times last week, we delve into this decline in wages in a seemingly thriving sector, and some of its possible implications.

Also, despite the hotel boom, many hospitality workers don’t fare much better, with the industry’s already low pay rates still well below the living wage. Desk clerks saw pay inch up, from $9.59 to $9.78 an hour. But housekeepers saw a drop from $9.51 to $9.30, as did bellhops, whose pay slid from $9.31 to $9.23.

Bricks and mortar

The people building those hotels — or just about anything else in Asheville — also didn’t exactly fare well. Despite all that new steel and concrete going up, pay for workers across the construction and extraction sector declined overall, with the median wage sliding from $15.83 an hour to $15.63. Construction laborers fared even worse, with wages taking an outright tumble from $12.34 to $12.02 an hour, though carpenters saw an increase from $16.30 to $16.41.

Over in “production occupations,” which broadly covers the manufacturing industry — often held out as a possible way forward to raising wages in the area — and some occupations like bakers and butchers, wages also declined overall, from $15.60 to $15.47.

Interestingly, this sector also includes brewery workers, lumped under “food batchmakers” alongside cheese and candymakers. At first glance, it looks like this sector went down considerably, from $11 an hour to $9.43. But the BLS’ numbers also note that “estimates not released,” so it’s probably not possible to draw conclusions from this until more information is available.

Treading water

Next to food service, another major sector fueled by the tourism economy is retail, with 19,540 jobs included under the broader category of “sales and related occupations.” Workers there, overall, fared a little better than their food service peers, but in this case that means that their median wage overall simply didn’t decline. They remained relatively stagnant over the year — and still largely below the living wage — going from $11.43 to $11.45.

Major jobs within the field saw similar minor increases. Cashiers went from $8.85 to $8.91. Retail salespersons did a bit better, going up from $10.49 to $10.66.

The price of service

As in most areas, public employment here is a major factor in the economy and there too, wages declined in many key sectors and jobs.

The Asheville area’s 9,910 educators (and librarians) saw their overall median pay go from $18.50 an hour to $18.47. Notably, unlike many other economic sectors in the area, there are fewer educators in the Asheville area than before: the field lost 100 jobs since May 2013.

The social services also dropped 70 jobs, going from 2,670 to 2,600. Wages there declined too, from $19.02 to $18.95 an hour.

The public safety field added jobs, going from 3,370 to 3,520, but pay went down there too, from $15.39 to $15.34 and the two largest jobs in the sector saw even sharper declines. Firefighters in the Asheville area, the largest part of the sector, saw their pay slide from $13.87 to $13.57. Police and sheriff’s patrol deputies, the second largest part of the sector, also had pay go down from $19.05 an hour to $18.77.

Bright spots

So what jobs and fields actually saw pay increase? Two major parts of the local economy did see wage increases and, in a few cases, some pretty decent ones. The healthcare sector, divided into two fields in the BLS’ reckoning, employs a combined 22,880 people, nearly as much as the food service sector.

The largest, “healthcare practitioners and technical occupations” — including doctors, nurses, dental hygienists, physical therapists and more — saw an increase from $27.63 to $28.23 an hour. The area’s 5,640 registered nurses, by far the largest part of the field, saw their field’s median pay go up from $28.88 to $29.41.

The other part of the healthcare sector, the 7,910 workers in “healthcare support occupations,” has considerably lower wages, but saw them go up nonetheless, from $11.81 to $12.06 an hour.

But not everyone within that field saw such benefits. The two largest occupations — home health aides and and nursing assistants — saw their pay go down. Aides saw a drop from $9.88 to $9.80, assistants from $11.42 to $11.19.

The largest single field in the local economy are the office and administrative support services for businesses in the area, including everything from accountants and tellers to call center workers, also saw an increase overall, from $14.04 to $14.36 an hour.

This is a massive field, cutting across many other sectors of the economy. But within that field, several major occupations also saw increases. Customer service representatives saw median pay jump from $11.83 to $12.43. Office clerks a small increase from $12.53 to $12.59 and Secretaries/Administrative Assistants a considerable jump from $14.48 to $15.20.

Also, while many of the people building those new buildings aren’t seeing their pay go up, the people designing and planning them certainly are. The architecture and engineering sector saw pay jump from $27.96 to $28.65, as the field grew from 1,950 to 2,020 jobs.

Shaky ground

The most prominent things about the numbers is the sheer range of jobs in the Asheville area that saw pay decline or stagnate, even in some fields where wages inched up overall. This included the tourism sector and most businesses — food service, hotel workers, construction, retail — fueled by it. But it also includes many public service workers, manufacturing and even some employees in sectors, like healthcare, that otherwise saw considerable increases. Many major sectors in the area remain just barely over or well under the living wage needed to make ends meet.

That leaves the whole area on an incredibly weak foundation. There’s the flat-out injustice, of course, that thousands of the people whose work makes Asheville possible are increasingly pushed into desperation.

These endemic low wages also hold back much of the rest of the economy. Low pay in such a variety of dominant sectors pulls down pay for other professions as well, one reason that the average pay here lags nearly $400 a month behind the state average. The reality that thousands upon thousands of local workers in many different sectors make below the pay they need to make ends meet means more draw on public assistance, less money to put back into the local economy and little time or resources to develop their own enterprises or even enjoy their own lives.

The fact many manage to hold on or claw their way forward anyway is a testament to the grit and ingenuity of our population, and the spirit of mutual support Ashevillians and WNC residents alike demonstrate when times are tough for friends and loved ones. One wonders, given this level of ability, what feats the same people could accomplish with a half-decent paycheck for their hard work.

This situation means that anyone looking to diversify the local economy is going to face a local base, in many cases, simply unable to support such efforts. Instead of funds going to a major purchase, a night out on the town, a festival ticket, books or saving for the future, they’re going more and more to avoid eviction and hunger. Low wages to this degree put the whole economy of the area on incredibly fragile terrain. It also makes growing the diversity and broad base necessary for a truly prosperous city impossible until this situation changes for everyone from firefighters to cooks to housekeepers.

It would be one thing if this were happening during a time when the area was limping back from recession or dealing with a so-so economy. But the city is supposedly seeing good times, with low unemployment, an expanding tourism economy, a building boom (or bubble) and increasing home prices. The fact that for many wages are still lagging or even going down shows that discussion about pay in Asheville needs to change drastically and, to start, it’s time for some myths to die.

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