Pay for essential workers is rising, but many say it’s still not enough.
Some 29 out of 30 essential-worker roles in industries such as public safety, food service, construction, maintenance and social work had a pay increase from 2019 to 2022, according to a report by compensation management platform Payscale.
Waiters and waitresses experienced the highest percentage increase in median annual pay — up 25% to over $20,000 in 2022 from 2019. Line cooks, janitors, cleaning and groundskeeping laborers and a few others were among those who saw their pay rise 20% during the same period.
The median annual wage for police and sheriff’s patrol officers was $70,750 in May 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from $67,600 in May 2019. This compares to $29,180 for retail sales workers, $26,000 for waiters and waitresses, $29,760 for janitors and building cleaners in May 2021.
People in 20 of 30 essential worker positions included in the Payscale report said they believed their pay was fair, while 16 roles experienced a decrease in the share of workers who said their pay was fair between 2019 and 2021. Program directors of nonprofit organizations were the least content about their pay in 2021, with just 11% reporting their pay was fair.
Essential workers provide the services that facilitate the basic functioning of a society, such as law enforcement, healthcare , food service, cleaning, construction and maintenance. Many of them earn low wages and have face more risks to their health compared to other occupations in the face of COVID-19.
After the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. in early 2020, employers were forced to lay off millions of workers as businesses shut down. As the pandemic continued, the labor market reversed course and tightened, and many employers have had a hard time finding workers.
Although wages have increased during the pandemic, the rate of increase is lagging behind the rate of inflation, which recently hit a 40-year high, said Amy Stewart, the report’s author and senior content marketing manager at Payscale.
She said the increase in wages is also below what workers want and expect, especially with the hardships a lot of essential workers have gone through in the past few years.
“Tepid wage increases are part of the reason for the Great Resignation or Great Reevaluation. People are looking around and considering what else is out there, and in many cases determining that they can do better,” Stewart said.
The cost of living rose 8.6% in May compared to last year. Aside from groceries, workers are also facing steep price hikes in rent and gas. Gas prices hit a record high national average of $5.01 a gallon in mid-June, but have since fallen to $4.80 a gallon on Monday, according to AAA.
Gas-price hikes hit hourly workers in particular, according to a recent survey by financial services company DailyPay and Funding Our Future, an alliance of organizations with the goal of helping people reach a financially viable retirement. Indeed, 81% of hourly workers said the gas-price hikes have negatively affected their ability to pay other bills.
Many consumers have reported dipping into their savings to cover rising costs and many have expressed unease about the amount of their cash savings. Meanwhile, the pay gap between CEOs and employees has continued to expand.
“Record inflation and high gas prices have reminded us how important financial security and flexibility are for American families,” said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that founded the Funding Our Future alliance.
“It’s crucial that we increase access to tools like emergency-savings accounts and on-demand pay that help workers save for and weather turbulent times,” Akabas said.