Wages of COVID: Pay has increased in Springfield, but so has inflation

All of the fast food restaurants in the Springfield area are currently hiring. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

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All of the fast food restaurants in the Springfield area are currently hiring. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Inflation steals away COVID-era wage gains

The COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on Springfield-area wages, with median pay for eight of the 10 most common jobs in the metro area rising from 2019 to 2021, according to a new study by Policy Matters Ohio.

While that is good news at first glance, Policy Matters Ohio Executive Director Hannah Halbert is quick to add that there are complications.

“It is good news. It’s about time. But the bigger context is: Look at what it took to get to these pay increases,” Halbert said, adding: “The increases are modest at best. I think it’s both good news — and it underscores how far we’ve let wages slip, how neglectful we’ve been in Ohio.”

The sea change from 2019 to 2021, of course, was COVID-19 and the federal government’s response to that.

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Graphic by Mark Freistedt.

Graphic by Mark Freistedt.

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Graphic by Mark Freistedt.

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Policy Matters’ new look at wages across Ohio shows that from 2019 to 2021, employers increased median pay for eight of the 10 most common jobs in the Springfield area. But three of the Springfield area’s 10 most common occupations paid so little that a worker with a family of three would need food aid to get by, the think tank says.

What’s more, today’s high inflation is eating away at what increases workers are able to enjoy, according to Policy Matters, a left-leaning institution.

“That’s the other complicating factor,” Halbert said. “Inflation is really zeroing out these wage gains.”

Relying on federal data, Policy Matters shows that two of the area’s most common occupations — fast food/counter workers and laborer and freight, stock and material movers/handlers — saw wages increase since 2019.

The fastest pay growth since 2019 among local jobs went to laborer and freight, stock and material movers/handlers (whose pay rose $4.66).

Since December 2020, nationally nominal wages and salaries were up 4.5%, marking the fastest increase since 1983, according to a Peterson Institute of International Economics report in January 2022.

Those national increases put nominal wages and salaries 1.2% above their pre-pandemic trend, the institute said in a report by Jason Furman and Wilson Powell III.

But again, inflation is stealing those gains.

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Jeff Haymond, dean of Cedarville University’s School of Business, said real wages have fallen for nine or 10 months.

“When I say ‘real,’ I mean adjusted for inflation,” he said.

That means less purchasing power, even if the numbers on paychecks are higher. And that phenomenon is affecting less affluent people in particular, Haymond said.

Even at relatively higher wages, employers are still desperate for qualified employees. A Labor Department survey last week showed a record number of job openings, 11.5 million.

Halbert’s policy recommendations are familiar ones: Put recent wage increases as the “floor” in law, with a higher minimum wage, indexed to inflation, she advises.

Said Halbert: “Being an entrepreneur or a business owner doesn’t entitle you to make a profit on the backs of working people. If the key ingredient to making your business work is poverty-level wages, I think we need to take a look at that business model.”

During COVID, the labor market changed. Eight of the 10 most common pre-COVID occupations shed jobs, particularly at restaurants and hotels.

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And that’s reflected in a reshuffling of occupations in the top 10, Halbert said. Some fell off the list, like waiters and waitresses, which rank at 15 today. In 2019, that occupation was at No. 9.

Nam Vu, Miami University economics professor, agrees that inflation is important to consider when it comes to wage growth.

“The wages that we have today are pretty much outdated,” Vu said. “Actually, when you have high inflation, wage growth can be negative. And that’s something we’re seeing right now.”

In Ohio, the problem is particularly acute when it comes to hospitality and restaurant workers, and even some manufacturing workers, he said.

He believes current inflation could well be long-lasting, feeding a self-fulfilling “expectation” of higher prices, “which means we could have a persistently negative wage growth,” he said.

“It is a very tricky situation. It very much reminds me of the (19)70s, and there’s no easy answer to that,” Vu said.

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