Public assistance to working Oregonians costs an estimated $1.7 billion annually, according to a new report on the impact of low-paying jobs.
Nearly 197,000 workers don't earn enough to cover their basic needs and rely in some part on public support, shows the study released Thursday by the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center.
"It's not even an issue of getting ahead," said Ellen Scott, a UO sociology and gender studies professor and co-author of the report. "They can't even get their heads above water."
"The High Cost of Low Wages in Oregon" contrasts stagnating pay with growing employer profits amid the economic recovery. The report, based on federal and state labor and public assistance statistics, was funded by the university as well as six labor groups.
"Oregon is a state with one of the highest number of folks needing assistance," said Raahi Reddy, a report co-author and faculty member of the UO Labor Education and Research Center. "And also a state with one of the lowest corporate tax rates. That's a real disconnect."
One in four people who work in occupations that pay $12 an hour or less, or an annual median of $25,000. Of those 412,000 jobs, three in four are located in five industries: retail, food service, personal care, cleaning and maintenance, and health care support.
The low-paying work is performed disproportionately by women and people of color. One in three female-headed households earns less than $25,000 a year, and a similar share lives below the poverty line. Half of Oregon's black or African American workforce is employed in a low-wage industries, as are 45 percent of Latino workers.
"It's not just about low wages, but it's also about the stability and ability for these working adults to rely on work," Reddy said.
According to the report, one in four Oregon workers work part time, and of those people, one-quarter would work more hours if their employer offered more. Nearly 7 percent of Oregon workers juggle more than one job.
Forty percent of adults who received help paying for food from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in January 2014 earned wages in 2013.
The report shows that roughly one in five of those workers were employed in the accommodation and food service industry. About 13,100 worked in fast-food restaurants, and another 11,900 in full service restaurants. The average wage for fast-food cooks was $13,960 in 2013.
Yet employer profits in Oregon have rebounded from the recession and continue to climb, the report notes. It points to industry-level data on gross operating surplus, a proxy for corporate profits, that shows Oregon industries earned $99.5 billion in 2012. Restaurants and motels earned a collective $1.2 billion, according to the report.
But comparing company profits and worker pay may be misleading, said Steve McCoid, president of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association. Although McCoid had not read the new UO report, he noted that restaurant outlets are often franchised by local entrepreneurs who do not earn large profits.
"They get painted with the brush of the national franchisor," McCoid said. "In reality those folks are small businessman just like the folks down the street."
Scott said the report juxtaposes the lives of workers and corporations, and asks what the divide between employer and worker wealth means. "We can't have a large sector of our society not able to make ends meet when they are working full time," Scott said.
The report includes profiles of workers who struggling to get by, including some who Scott spoke to for a different study five years ago. In many cases, their circumstances have not changed, she said. Almost half of the people interviewed had at least some college training, but were not able to find jobs in line with their education. "They are very aware of how stuck they are," she said.
The authors lay out a list of policy suggestions, including expanding some benefits and encouraging collective bargaining.
Its release coincides with the launch of Fair Shot for All, a coalition of labor and advocacy groups and other organizations whose policy agenda includes raising the minimum wage from its current mark of $9.25 hourly and providing paid sick leave to employees statewide.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect gross operating surplus data, which shows Oregon industries earned a collective $99.5 billion in 2012.