Progress in Focus: To Create Better Jobs, Invest in Workers
This is Part 3 in our "Progress in Focus" series of blog posts highlighting the individual sections of the Progress Index. This post is focused on Good Jobs.
by Lori Pfingst, Research and Policy Director, and Kim Justice, Senior Budget Analyst
The cornerstone of a strong middle class is an abundance of well-paying jobs that allow workers to meet their basic needs and to get ahead. Lawmakers have opportunities to strengthen the middle class in Washington state right now. They can do this by increasing their investment in workers and their families. But this is dependent on whether lawmakers have the foresight to raise new revenue.
According to our Progress Index, Washington state has a lot going for it when it comes to jobs. Our state is nationally recognized for having one of the highest shares of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs (15 percent). With high median incomes, STEM jobs ($77,698) and STEM-related jobs ($68,984) are critical to the overall health of Washington state's middle class.
But while the share of STEM jobs is relatively high compared to other states, the vast majority (85 percent) of jobs in Washington state pay far lower median wages ($45,574). In fact, the largest non-STEM job categories are retail sales, cashiers, and food service. And they all have median annual incomes below $25,000 – well below what it takes to meet basic needs in most places in the state.
The trend toward lower-wage work has been happening for some time. Indeed, wages for low- and middle-income workers have been stagnant for nearly four decades (see "At a Glance" table for a summary; and see the full Progress Index to review all the data we use to measure progress). Meanwhile, on the other side of the recession, all the income gains have gone to the richest 1 percent. In addition, investments in the kinds of things that workers need to do their jobs well – child care for their kids, after-school programs, a reliable bus system – have steadily declined or grown stagnant as well. This limits the potential of our state to create good jobs and produce a competitive 21st century workforce.
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Proposed Budget Investments
As they negotiate their budgets in Olympia, lawmakers can make a range of investments that would improve the economic security of workers and strengthen the potential of our workforce over time. Education – from early learning through higher education – has dominated the budget negotiations thus far. Lawmakers are keenly aware that these investments play a critical role in workforce development and the creation of good jobs, especially those in high-wage, high-skilled STEM occupations. But investing in education alone is not enough.
Good jobs and productive workers would benefit from a range of policies currently under consideration. Lawmakers should raise additional revenue to fund not only education, but also all of the other investments Washington state's workers and economy need to thrive. Just a few of the policies that would lead to a healthier workforce in our state include:
- Approving collective bargaining agreements with workers who provide essential public services: Our public servants play a key role in our state. They protect children from abuse and neglect, care for seniors and people with disabilities, and provide services to college students, among many other things. They should be adequately compensated for the important work they do for Washingtonians. Last summer, workers who collectively bargain with the state reached an agreement with the Governor that would result in their first raise since 2008. The House budget funds this wage increase – 3 percent in 2015 and 1.8 percent in 2016 with an additional 0.8 percent or $20 per month, depending on the employee’s salary. The Senate, however, undermines the collective bargaining process, attempting to impose watered-down wage increases of a flat $1,000 increase in each year of the biennium – which is far below the rate of inflation. The Senate also proposes to strip home-care workers of the retirement benefit they negotiated, and it would cut health benefits to retired state employees who receive Medicare.
- Retaining and attracting the best teachers for students. Although voters approved Initiative 732 in 2000 to provide Cost-of-Living-Adjustments (COLAs) to teachers, those increases have been suspended by the Legislature in eight out of the past 14 years. For the first time since 2008, COLAs would be provided under both budget proposals – an increase of 1.8 percent in the 2015-16 school year and 1.3 percent in the 2016-17 school year. Reinstating and increasing the COLA is important to attract and retain high-quality teachers for our kids. It also addresses the overall funding deficiencies in our K-12 public schools and helps meets the requirements under McCleary. The House budget invests an extra $150 million for an added boost to align the teacher COLA with the wage increase received by state employees. It also invests $200 million to align teachers' benefits with that of state employees.
- Keeping families secure while parents find work. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program helps parents who are seeking employment find work while also ensuring that they can provide the basics for their families. Stabilizing families during times of transition produces better outcomes for children and our economy. Yet funding for the program has eroded in the last few years, despite increased financial hardship during the recession. The House budget begins to restore some help to families by increasing funding for TANF by $18 million, including investments to provide housing for homeless families on TANF. The Senate's budget would further erode TANF by stripping $40 million from services, like housing assistance and utility supports (see table).
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It takes investments to prepare a competitive workforce, create good jobs, and help workers get ahead. Additional resources are necessary. That's why it's vital that lawmakers adopt new source of revenue through a capital gains tax and by closing tax breaks, as the House budget proposes. Without such investments, we are likely to continue to see an increasing trend toward low-wage work. Which brings with it an increase in the number of people falling behind and struggling to make ends meet – or worse, falling into poverty. As the richest Washingtonians continue to be the only ones benefiting from income gains, this disparity is simply unconscionable.
To read our additional recommendations for how to improve our state’s jobs market, visit the Good Jobs section of our Progress Index. Stay tuned for "Progress in Focus" blog posts on the other sections of our Progress Index.