Why are wages still stagnant? Blame the labor market

at 02:21 PM ET, 03/13/2012

While the last few jobs reports have been encouraging, not everything about the labor market looks rosy. Hourly pay rose just 1.9 percent over the past year — less than the rate of inflation. And a new report gives us a better handle on why that is.


(Damian Dovarganes/AP)
On Tuesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly data on job openings and turnovers. The upshot is that workers still don’t have a whole lot of bargaining power in the current labor market. There are still 3.7 job seekers for every available employment opportunity. That’s down considerably from the brutal 6.7-to-1 ratio seen in July, 2009. But as Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute points out , the current ratio is also higher than at any point during the 2001 downturn. Across just about every industry, competition remains intense for a limited number of jobs, which means that employers are under less pressure to offer higher pay in order to entice prospective workers.

That dynamic is reinforced by other aspects of today’s job market. As the BLS figures show, companies are no longer laying off workers at an unusually high rate — indeed, the 1.6 million layoffs in January, 2011 were roughly comparable to the 1.7 million layoffs in January, 2007, before the recession hit. That’s the good news. But hiring is still down from pre-recession levels. And voluntary quits are way down from pre-crisis levels. In December of 2007, before the recession began, 2.9 million workers voluntarily left their job to pursue other opportunities. This past month, just 2 million did.

Add it all up. Companies are still reluctant to hire. Workers are still reluctant to leave their jobs. And there's intense competition for what few openings do arise. As Shierholz notes, it’s no wonder real wages have been falling over the past year: “The lack of outside options reduces a crucial avenue for individuals to see wage growth (changing jobs). Furthermore, with limited outside options for their workers, employers do not have to substantially increase wages to keep the workers they need. The result has been a dramatic slowing of wage growth since the start of the recession.”

 
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