For many women, it's a low-wage recovery

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Four years after the official end of the Great Recession, the labor force is still suffering.

Nearly a third of the jobs gained in the economy since 2009 are in the 10 most common lowest-paying occupations, according to a study by the National Women's Law Center, which also found that women are disproportionately winding up in those low-wage positions.

While the number of jobs held by women has returned almost to the level seen before the economic downturn, 60 percent of those recovered have been in the 10 largest low-wage categories, according to the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

In some industries, even as men have recovered jobs, women are still below where they were at the official end of the recession.

In a year-to-year comparison of June 2009 to June 2013, the economy added 5.3 million new jobs. In nearly every sector that has gained jobs, men have gained more than women. The notable exception is in education and health services, in which women have gained 1 million jobs and men have filled 469,000.

PG graphic: Women in low-wage jobs
(Click image for larger version)

But even those sector gains include low-paying jobs, such as the home health aides, which account for the bulk of the 50,000 jobs added by home health care companies. Eighty-eight percent of home health aides are women.

"The good news is that women are gaining back jobs, but the bad news is that most of them are in these low-wage sectors," said Joan Entmacher, an attorney with the National Women's Law Center.

In addition, she said there has been a shift for women from fairly well-paying jobs with benefits to low-wage jobs with no benefits. In the past four years, the public sector has cut 734,000 jobs -- from police officers and teachers to military analysts and engineers. Women's employment in federal, state and local governments has fallen by 444,000, while men lost 290,000 such jobs.

In manufacturing, which is typically a male-dominated sector, women have lost 121,000 jobs since June 2009 while employment by men has grown by 364,000.

That statistic, Ms. Entmacher said, was surprising because while men lost more manufacturing jobs and then proceeded to regain positions, women have continued to lose work.

Bill Spriggs, an economist for the labor organization AFL-CIO, said the overall job gain in manufacturing is probably being driven by growth in areas that tend to hire mostly men, such as aircraft manufacturing and auto plants.

"We are not seeing the rebound [for women], which is disturbing because of lot of what they do is food processing," he said.

After the end of the recession, private employers continued to shed jobs until 2010. Hiring started to rebound in the fall of that year.

Over the nearly three years since the job trough, Mr. Spriggs said, employment has still not truly recovered, which makes this the third "jobless recovery" in a row.

That means the low-wage jobs that would have gone wanting for employees in a time of low unemployment are becoming the only jobs available.

PG graphic: Job change by sector
(Click image for larger version)

Those are now filled by people who need to support a family, rather than by kids looking for pocket money.

"Who would ever think we would see striking workers at McDonald's, except that those are real jobs," he said, referring to strikes calling for living wages that have been held this summer at fast-food restaurants in Detroit, Seattle and New York City.

Some job gains appear to be more attractive than they actually are.

For instance, it looks great that the professional and business services sector is hiring, but those positions are mostly cleaning buildings, waste disposal and temporary help, Mr. Spriggs said.

"Those are low-wage jobs, even though they have the glitzy title 'professional and business services,' " he said.

While U.S. unemployment has fallen from 10 percent in August 2009 to 7.4 percent last month, 11.5 million people were still unemployed in July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Using that data and the numbers from the bureau's report on job openings this past week, Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., showed there are 3.1 unemployed workers for every job opening.

Though workers have filled more low-wage jobs than they used to, it has not caused average wages to decline because those jobs are still just a small percentage of the 136 million jobs in the country.

What workers have seen instead is wage stagnation. Employers do not hand out raises, or they give lower raises than in good times even as inflation erodes workers' real earnings, she said.


Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.


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