It’s no secret that workers in the United States face an uneven playing field. The notion that getting an education or working hard leads to economic stability has vanished. Even before the pandemic, only 29% of Americans felt that they were in a strong, stable place financially.
Who are America’s most underpaid workers? It depends on the definition of underpaid. Generally, underpaid means that a worker is not compensated adequately for the job that they perform. This could apply to any employee at any job, but some workers are more vulnerable than others.
When examining which workers in the United States are underpaid, it becomes clear that some workers are underpaid because the jobs they do are undervalued. An undervalued job or profession is one that is not recognized as being as important or valuable as it is, and underpayment is the result.
Underpaid professions are those whose value to society is not reflected in their wages. The most often cited in this category are public school teachers. Their national average salary of a little over $61,000 does not adequately represent the importance or difficulty of their work.
The United States tends to underpay nearly all workers in helping professions. Those include nursing (a certified nursing assistant makes about $28,500), social work (averaging about $50,500), all child care professions (average $17,000-$33,000), and EMTs and paramedics ($35,400).
While these professions are foundational to our functioning society, they are paid far less than their peers in banking or finance, revealing a societal preference for those who generate wealth over those who care for others.
Even professionals with advanced degrees in helping professions do not earn wages that reflect the importance of their work or the level of their expertise. The average salary for a registered nurse in the United States is $73,550. That seems like a decent wage, but is far less than a public relations manager ($132,630) and the work is arguably much more crucial.
Underpaid Hourly Workers
As the pandemic unfolded, the United States began to recognize the multitude of hourly workers that make possible the things that most people take for granted. Workers in grocery stores, food production facilities, municipal services, manufacturing facilities, maintenance, and agriculture form the infrastructure of the economy.
Yet these workers are uniformly underpaid. Without a federal minimum wage that is sufficient for survival, the hourly rates for these fundamental essential workers usually range from $11 to $15.
The Hospitality and Retail Industries
Hit hardest by the pandemic, hospitality and retail services were already paying the lowest wages in the country. The hospitality and retail industries include those who work in all types of food service, store clerks and cashiers, hotel employees, personal services providers, and more.
Many of these workers lost their jobs when their establishments were forced to close due to the pandemic, and few of them earn enough to have any financial buffer. They also tend to work less than 40 hours a week so lack benefits like health insurance, paid sick time, or contracts for their services. Some of these workers make as little as the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour.
Why Are These Workers Paid So Poorly?
Decline in Unions
In the mid-20th century, negotiated union contracts ensured that many American workers in private companies—over 35%— received fair wages, benefits, and had safe working conditions.
The intervening years have seen an attack on American labor unions, including aggressive limits on collective bargaining and few consequences for employers that illegally punish employees who want to unionize.
By 2015, fewer than 7% of workers in America’s private sector were represented by a union.
The result is workers with little power to demand living wages.
Over the past 40 years, there has been a shift in focus by many of America’s companies. An emphasis on profit as the driving force for doing business has replaced the values of community and quality.
The result is that large corporations with the resources to produce inexpensively have driven out locally owned businesses with ties to the community and loyalty to employees. These are businesses that can produce products overseas, which also reduces American manufacturing jobs.
Companies have become top-heavy, paying huge amounts of money to executives while reducing the workforce and paying inadequate wages. Played out over and over again, this scenario results in the stagnation of wages and a permanently underpaid workforce.
Other factors influencing low wages and underpayment include a lack of societal valuation of fundamentally vital jobs like nursing and teaching, as well as an unwillingness to recognize essential services as jobs that deserve a living wage.
Changing the Narrative
If the United States hopes to avoid what is rapidly becoming a two-class society (those who possess great wealth and those who possess none) it needs to look inward.
The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities in a lot of American systems, most notably healthcare but the tenuous financial security of most citizens as well. The government has not responded by shoring up businesses affected or increasing access to quality healthcare, but by insisting that citizens risk their lives to continue access to already inadequate wages.
That reality shines the light on the changes that need to come, starting at the top with those who represent the people in Congress. Much like the skewed business model prioritizing profit, the federal government has become an instrument that protects the wealthy at the expense of the majority of its citizens.
Change will come when people who are financially able support local businesses that pay fair wages and stop supporting those that do not. It will come when there is sufficient pressure on Washington to fix the broken healthcare system, shore up the social safety net, and stop allowing a tiny fraction of citizens to hoard the wealth of a nation.
Systemic change is hard, but having been shown so starkly the cost of underpaying workers at the core of society, perhaps the United States can begin the hard work necessary to adjust national priorities.
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