A Look at Low-Wage Employment in Colorado

September 4, 2017

As Colorado celebrates Labor Day and the important progress made over time for working families here and throughout the country, it’s worth taking a fresh look at a central factor in employment growth and the economic well-being of workers: wages. More specifically, there’s a persistent need to examine the share of low-wage jobs in our economy, who holds those jobs, how Colorado compares to other states, and how low-wage employment affects workers’ ability to afford basic needs like housing.

As economic policy discussions inevitably turn to job and wage growth, this type of analysis can shed light on what trends are actually emerging with employment, what communities are most affected by low wages, and what that might mean over time for economic growth and equality. Rather than rely on assumptions, myths, and stereotypes to inform policy, we look to the data and facts.

In Colorado, the data and facts point to a few key insights. The first is that low-wage earners have regained some of what was lost since the Great Recession. However, these gains are a fraction of what the wealthiest 1% gained since then. The second is that women, Hispanics, and African-Americans are likelier to hold low-wage jobs, which reinforces the need to address systemic barriers such as racial discrimination, gender bias, and persistent pay gaps when considering economic and wage policies. The third is that while the portion of low-wage jobs is smaller in Colorado than in other states, the share of low-wage jobs has grown over the last 15 years. And the fourth is that stagnation in low-wage job is putting Colorado workers at a severe disadvantage when it comes to affordability of basic needs like housing.

While workers have made considerable progress over time across many indicators, the facts and data around low-wage jobs are essential to understand and critical in shaping policy decisions going forward. Because, while it’s important to celebrate past progress, there is no guarantee of future success without a fuller comprehension of how we got here.

Key Findings

  • The bottom 20 percent of wage earners have seen their wages rebound in the last two years, regaining the loss from the Great Recession, though these gains are far outpaced by income growth for the richest 1%.
  • Women, Hispanics, and African-Americans are likelier to hold low-wage jobs than other demographic groups.
  • The portion of Colorado’s total jobs that are classified as “low wage” is smaller than most states, particularly when comparing cost of living and wages across states.
  • For some of the largest low wage jobs, the cost of housing consumes more than half of the paycheck of those workers particularly in the Denver Metro Area and resort communities.

Read CFI’s full report here

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