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Study: More than 25% of Wyoming workers earn low wages

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By Abby Vander Graaff
Laramie Boomerang
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

LARAMIE —  As Wyoming residents and businesses struggle with inflation and staffing shortages, more than 25% of Cowboy State workers face another hurdle in surviving a turbulent economy: low wages.

Wyoming workers are some of the lowest paid in the nation, according to a recent study by the Wyoming Community Foundation. The study is part of the organization’s annual Wyoming Counts Kids Data Book, which exposes vulnerabilities at the state and county levels.

Wyoming’s minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, tied with Georgia for the national low, according to the study. This means the state defaults to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which was last adjusted in 2009.

Of the 175,000 full-time workers in Wyoming, nearly 44,000 earn $15 per hour or less, according to the study.

On top of earning low wages, inflation has made things worse for people already struggling to make ends meet, said University of Wyoming Center for Business and Economic Analysis Director David Aadland. While inflation impacts everyone, it has a stronger impact on those spending most of their paychecks on food and energy, some of the top products reflecting price hikes.

While there’s not much wage data available at the county level, low pay rates likely impact Albany County more than other areas of the state, Aadland said.

While a majority of Wyoming relies on energy production as a main economic driver, the Albany County economy runs on the service sector, which is more reliant on low-wage workers. This includes areas like real estate, banks, hospitals and insurance, along with restaurants and retail outlets.

Aadland explained that while often high earners are the focus of conversations about economic growth, low earners are critical to providing the amenities that draw companies and people to the area and create economic growth.

“Low-income workers are going to be key to making sure restaurants are open seven days a week, same with retail,” Aadland said. “They’re critically important in terms of keeping companies here (and) keeping the vast majority of workers here.”

Despite the economic benefits of having a strong service sector, a walk through downtown Laramie shows that businesses are struggling to find employees. What has become a prolonged worker shortage is likely driven by a combination of low wages, stimulus checks and an overall culture shift in the workforce since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Aadland said.

“Probably the reason you’re seeing shortages in these low-wage occupations is although wages have gone up, they haven’t kept up with inflation,” he said.

Wyoming is ranked as one of the top five most unequal states in the nation when it comes to income — with Teton County leading the charts, according to a 2018 Economic Policy Institute ranking.

A gender pay gap also exists in the state, with Wyoming women making an average of 69 cents for every $1 a man earns in 2020, according to the Wyoming Community Foundation.

This gap is closing in Albany County with an 18-cent compensation gap between men and women recorded in 2020 — down from 21 cents in 2016.

Child poverty rates also have dropped 7.4 percentage points in Albany County since 2011, for a 2020 rate of 11.8%.

“The business community, elected officials and higher education have come together to create new opportunities for folks to fall in this (low-wage) category to increase their skillset to increase their earnings capacity,” said Cindy Delancey, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance.

She explained that throughout the state there’s been conversation on how to continue to build out the workforce at all levels of pay, because staffing issues extend beyond the $15 per hour level.

Wyoming Department of Workforce Services has multiple programs that work to specifically help advance lower paid workers, said spokesperson Holly Simoni.

These programs include the use of federal grant money from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, career counseling and training, veterans programs and collaborations with businesses and colleges.

The department also helps employers set consistent wages for new jobs and work through the applicant screening process.

“Part of our mission is that we educate folks in that community,” Simoni said. “We try to educate about job development and wages and spread the word about how we can help with that.”

Of Wyoming’s low-wage workers, only 8% have not earned a high school diploma or equivalent, according to the Wyoming Community Foundation study. More than half have attended at least some college or earned a degree.

As states around the country begin raising minimum wages, Wyoming has remained stagnant. State House Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, sponsored a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2021, but it died from lack of support. It’s one of many such bills over the years to fail.

While the definition of a living wage hasn’t changed, society could do a better job of measuring the real costs of goods and services that people need, Aadland said.

“They just can’t find people,” he said. “Something happened between the pandemic and the inflation and the stimulus that caused people to not want to do these jobs.”

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