WILMINGTON, Del. — Thomas Gray says he was fortunate coming out of the recession: He took a job in one of the nation’s fastest-growing industries, food services, preparing meals for 500 students in a Head Start cafeteria.
But after two years of work, his salary had not budged, so his mother came out of retirement and took a job at United Way. Four more years have passed, and Gray is skipping bills to manage his expenses. During that time, his salary has risen 58 cents, to $11.70 per hour. But after taking into account the rising price of goods and services — inflation — he has taken a 6 percent pay cut.
“That’s six years,” Gray, 35, said. “And I’ve never missed a day.”
With unemployment down to 5.8 percent, the country’s half-formed recovery is often described with a convenient shorthand: We have jobs but little wage growth. But stagnancy is just an average, and for many Americans, the years since the financial crisis have pushed them farther from the line, according to a detailed analysis of government labor statistics by The Washington Post.
The analysis shows that wage growth has differed wildly, with widening disparities between black and white, young and old, high- and low-skill professions. Some economists say the uneven wage growth is the missing piece to the puzzle of why the recovery has been so disappointing.
Among the winners in this climate: Older workers, women and those with finance and technology jobs.
Among the losers: Part-timers, the young, men, and those in the health, retail and food industries.
Men are struggling because they have long been the flag bearers for blue-collar, middle-class jobs — positions harder to find post-recession. Since the depths of the financial crisis in early 2009, median weekly wages for full-time men have fallen 3.5 percent (adjusted for inflation), while wages for women have held steady, according to population survey data from the Labor Department.
In the meantime, entry-level positions have faced downward pressure. Many employers have been reluctant to cut wages for existing workers, instead slashing pay for newly opened jobs.
That explains why the young have taken such a blow. Relative to inflation, full-time workers between 16 and 19 make 9.7 percent less than they did in 2009. Those between 20 and 24 make 6.1 percent less.
All this comes as many retail, health and service companies shift increasingly to part-time labor.
Since 2006, the number of Americans seeking full-time work but reluctantly holding part-time jobs has risen 65 percent, to 6.8 million. Although pay for full- and part-timers typically rises and falls in parallel, over the past three years the full-timers have pulled ahead by one or two percentage points, depending on the quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Measured by race, the pattern is more muddled. Among full-time workers, wage growth for blacks is slightly ahead of wage growth for whites — in part because blacks have less representation in the hard-hit construction and manufacturing industries.
But blacks also have proven much more likely to slide into part-time jobs, where they are faring far worse. For black part-timers, inflation-adjusted wages have fallen 9.4 percent since 2009. For white part-timers, wages are flat.
Wages haven’t risen hand-in-hand with employment because the labor market isn’t back to full health, economists say. The United States still has enough job-seekers — and job-holders looking for different work — that employers have little incentive to boost wages and compete for talent.
In Delaware, where Gray lives, the post-recession trends are particularly vivid. The state — a low-tax haven for financial institutions — was once home to a vibrant manufacturing base, some of those companies feeding the DuPont chemical company, headquartered in Wilmington. But DuPont has steadily cut jobs. Around the time of the financial crisis, Chrysler and GM shuttered plants.
Jobs have indeed come back, and state unemployment is at 6.5 percent, ranking 32nd among the 50 states. But those jobs are at the top and bottom of the pay scale, and moving farther away from one another.
In New Castle County, which includes Wilmington, three fields account for nearly all job growth: professional and technical services (architects, accountants and engineers), health and social assistance, accommodation and food services.
In the first of those categories, wages, adjusted for inflation, have risen 27 percent since 2009, according to state labor data. The average worker earns $124,000 annually. In the other two sectors, wages have fallen 4 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Both pay below the national average, and the typical food service worker earns $16,959 per year. In real terms, the past six years have come with a $650 pay cut.
“There is still little wage pressure, because we’re not at full employment,” said George Sharpley, chief economist at the Delaware Department of Labor. “But that is not the case in certain occupational categories.”
Finance jobs, too, have seen modest growth around Wilmington, with salaries up 28 percent since 2009. Nationally, finance salaries have grown 7.2 percent during that span, the best-performing profession after IT (7.5 percent).
For those at the bottom, adjustments have been painful. Gray, who has 11- and 18-year-old daughters, recent told his eldest — a recent high school graduate — that she, too, needed to find work.
“Put it this way,” Gray said. “There is zero money — none. My daughter, she can’t be a liability no more.”
Gray, 35, never quite climbed to the middle of the pay scale, but he tried. And he was pushed back down, he said.
Fresh out of high school, he worked better-paying jobs, earning $13 per hour at a warehouse, and $15 per hour at a casino. He briefly attended Delaware Technical Community College.
“Comfortable but uncomfortable,” is how Gray describes America’s recovery. Comfortable, because he has a job, likes his boss and likes his 7 a.m. to 3 p.m hours.
Uncomfortable, because he feels like he’s falling behind, and because he has applied for 12 jobs this year, anything he can find on the state and city employment portals.
“I just need more money,” he said. “I’m not in a position to work for the love.”
Gray works on the east side of Wilmington, in a predominantly black neighborhood that looks across the Brandywine Creek toward the Capitol One and Chase buildings.
The area shows signs of vibrancy — new solar-panel projects and a few construction sites — but during a 36-hour visit to a half-dozen east side businesses, only one employer said he has raised wages since the recession.
“I would love to do it, but then I’d be broke and in a line for a job somewhere else,” said Fred Reed, who runs the Read to Learn Academy and pays $10 for entry-level positions.
Some small businesses said their decision to freeze wages doesn’t stem from a desire to make more profit. Revenue is down. Insurance is up.
At Northeast Body Shop, across the street from Gray’s Head Start center, owner Charlie Allen said his 50-year-old business is paying spiraling costs for auto parts and paint, while still trying to cover health care.
“We’re not the big bad guys as we’re so often portrayed,” Allen said. “If you drill down into the numbers, we’re just trying to hold things together.”