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Lower-paying jobs dominate recovery

Lower-wage occupations such as cashiers grew 3.2 percent in the first quarter of 2011. (Associated Press)
Lower-wage occupations such as cashiers grew 3.2 percent in the first quarter of 2011. (Associated Press)
Alana Semuels Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The majority of jobs being created in this economic recovery are lower-paying ones, while higher-paying positions have been slow to return, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Employment Law Project.

Lower-wage occupations such as sales and office clerks, cashiers and food preparation workers grew 3.2 percent in the first quarter of 2011 from a year earlier, the report said. In contrast, higher-wage jobs such as registered nurses, engineers and finance workers declined by 1.2 percent. Mid-wage positions such as paralegals, customer service representatives and machinists grew by 1.2 percent.

“The dominant growth in lower-wage occupations suggests that there is a good-jobs deficit that has hollowed out many of the decent work opportunities people are looking for,” said Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project.

Job losses during the recession were concentrated in mid-wage occupations, the report shows. About 60 percent of the jobs lost between the first quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2010 were mid-wage jobs. About 21.3 percent were lower-wage occupations and 18.7 percent were higher-wage occupations.

Further, wages fell even among the lower-wage category. They have declined 2.3 percent since December 2007, while pay in mid-wage positions fell 0.9 percent. Workers in higher-paid positions saw a slight uptick in real wages since the start of the recession.

The study classified jobs as lower-wage if they paid $7.51 to $13.51 an hour (in 2011 dollars), mid-wage if they paid $13.53 to $20.66 an hour, and higher-wage if they paid $20.67 to $53.32 an hour.

Kenneth Woods, 31, has noticed the absence of well-paying jobs in the economy. The caregiver said he’s looking for “pretty much anything,” since caregiving jobs are hard to come by.

“I thought I’d have more options,” he said while searching for work in a Moreno Valley, Calif., Employment Development Department office.

The National Employment Law Project study, one of the only ones to track job growth in terms of wages rather than job categories, points to a trend in which middle-class jobs have been declining. Economists worry that this trend exacerbates a growing gap between rich and poor in America. If middle-wage jobs are not created in the recovery, this gap will grow, Bernhardt said.

“Growing wage inequality in the United States is a phenomenon that’s three decades in the making, and which the recession only exacerbated,” she said.

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