Idaho Leads Nation In Number Of Low-Wage Workers

fromBSPR

Tuesday marks the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act. That law created a nationwide minimum wage which is now $7.25 an hour. Democrats are pushing to raise the wage, but Republicans say higher pay would hurt job creation. Idaho has been losing higher paying manufacturing jobs but gaining low-paying service jobs.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Seventy-five years ago today, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. That law established the federal minimum wage. So we're going to spend some time this morning in the state that has the highest proportion of workers who are paid this lowest legal hourly wage, which is now $7.25 an hour.

From Boise State Public Radio, Emilie Ritter Saunders reports on why Idaho is seeing low-wage work increase.

EMILIE RITTER SAUNDERS, BYLINE: Two workers are busy hand-tossing pizza dough, spreading sauce on the crust and layering New York-style pies with toppings at this Boise pizza shop.

Save for the owners, everyone at Franco's Pizzeria earns $7.50 an hour - that's a quarter above minimum wage.

JORDYN SKINNER: That's pretty much what I expected; that's what I got paid back home when I worked retail.

SAUNDERS: Jordyn Skinner is an 18-year-old college student and part-time pizza maker during the school year. For her, this low-wage job is just a stepping stone.

SKINNER: But for right now, while I'm in college, it's - it's all right.

SAUNDERS: Skinner is part of Idaho's growing service sector. The Idaho Labor Department says three in four jobs created here last year were service jobs, like those found in retail shops and restaurants. Lots of those businesses are trying to appeal to Idaho's new residents - retirees moving here from other states.

Mike and Louise Berlin are among those newcomers. They're mostly retired, have monthly income from investments and rental properties, and they stop at places like Franco's for an inexpensive dinner a couple times a week.

Sixty-year-old Louise Berlin says the couple first checked out Boise in winter 2007.

LOUISE BERLIN: We came in February and it was fabulous. It was cold but it was beautiful, sun shining; we thought, ah, this is a sign.

SAUNDERS: The Berlins sold their two California homes that year, at the peak of the housing market, and moved to Boise.

Each year, thousands of people move here from surrounding Western states. That may sound like great news for Idaho - new residents pay taxes and purchase local goods and services - like fresh-baked pizzas and new landscaping.

BOB UHLENKOTT: Those service jobs are going to thrive as long as that in-migration occurs of that older age cohort.

SAUNDERS: Bob Uhlenkott is the Idaho Labor Department's chief researcher. He says there is also a downside to all these retirees coming to Idaho. In general, they don't spur job growth in high-paying sectors. At the same time the state has been gaining low-paying service jobs, it has been losing manufacturing jobs. The people moving out of Idaho are younger in search of higher-paying work, like what you might find in North Dakota's oil fields.

UHLENKOTT: The fact that we're getting older so fast is something that going to really have a huge impact.

SAUNDERS: Here's the bright spot: Retirees will require more health care workers. Uhlenkott predicts the state may see more high-wage workers in that sector, such as doctors, physical therapists and nurses.

But Idaho needs a wide range of good jobs now. That's a problem that affects even Louise and Mike Berlin, who - for the most part - enjoy their new state.

L. BERLIN: I love to shovel snow, I know that sounds crazy, but it's, you know...

MIKE BERLIN: I love the fact that she loves to shovel snow.

(LAUGHTER)

SAUNDERS: Still, they're a little lonely. They wish younger family members and friends could join them in Idaho, but they know the state offers relatively few opportunities to find high-paying jobs.

M. BERLIN: I didn't have to have a job in Idaho order to move here, which is the situation with even some of our friends we'd love to entice to move here - but they have to find a job.

SAUNDERS: The Republican-dominated Idaho legislature hasn't shown any interest in raising the wage above the federal minimum, as at least 18 other states have done. So a citizen initiative drive recently got underway.

If organizers get enough signatures to qualify for next year's general election ballot, Idaho voters will decide if their state's minimum wage should go up.

For NPR News, I'm Emilie Ritter Saunders in Boise.

GREENE: And that story from Emilie Ritter Saunders comes to us from State Impact, a collaboration between NPR and member stations, examining how state issues and policy affect people's lives.

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