RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Something unusual is happening in the U.S. labor market. Workers at the bottom of the income ladder are finally seeing bigger pay raises than those who are higher up. That is partly because of the tight job market. With unemployment near a 50-year low, businesses have to pay more to attract new workers. Minimum wage, though, is also at play here. Economists say minimum wage hikes at the state and local level are giving a boost to millions of workers. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Kecia Jolley works at a grocery store in Springfield, Mo. She typically works the closing shift - noon to 8:00, or 3:00 to 10 p.m.
KECIA JOLLEY: I'm a cashier. I assist people every day with their groceries.
HORSLEY: When she started, almost two years ago, Jolley made minimum wage, which at the time was $7.85 an hour in Missouri. She's still making the minimum, but thanks to a ballot measure passed in 2018, that minimum is going up. When Jolley gets her first paycheck of 2020 on Friday, she'll be earning $9.45 an hour.
JOLLEY: I would hope that it gets better, and I think that I'll be better off, but I think that it's going to still be a struggle.
HORSLEY: Jolley says her paycheck will still barely cover her rent and utilities. She relies on food stamps and school lunches to help feed her three children - ages 6, 11 and 14. Jolley's grateful that Missouri voters approved three additional increases in the minimum wage over the next three years. By 2023, the minimum will climb to $12 an hour.
JOLLEY: I would consider that at least a decent living wage, and then people can pay their bills. They can possibly get a few things on their wants list every month. Like, kids need new clothes or - I'm a girl; I ran out of mascara, like, a month ago - luxury items such as new socks.
HORSLEY: In Arizona, Colorado and Maine, the minimum wage is already $12 an hour. The federal minimum has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for more than a decade. But economist Ernie Tedeschi of Evercore ISI says nearly two dozen states gave minimum wage workers a raise on January 1.
ERNIE TEDESCHI: If you're a minimum wage worker in America right now, on average, you're actually probably getting paid closer to $12 an hour. That's what I call the effective minimum wage.
HORSLEY: And Tedeschi says those rising minimums are an important factor helping to lift up workers at the bottom of the pay scale.
TEDESCHI: Right now, the economy is doing something extraordinary. People at the bottom have actually seen higher wage growth than people at the top and in the middle.
HORSLEY: Minimum wages aren't the only factor, Tedeschi says. Low-wage workers also have more bargaining power now, as employers scramble to fill job openings when unemployment is just 3.5%. The patchwork of minimum wages around the country does create a sort of natural experiment, though, for economists trying to measure the effects on low-wage workers. Elise Gould, who's with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, compared states that raise their minimums to those that didn't.
ELISE GOULD: No matter how you cut it, the low-wage workers are getting a larger wage boost in states that have raised their minimum wage.
HORSLEY: Gould estimates the higher minimums that took effect this month boosted paychecks for nearly 7 million workers across the country. Economist David Neumark of UC Irvine cautions, however, the higher cost for employers may come with trade-offs.
DAVID NEUMARK: You're getting a raise if you keep your job and if your hours don't change, but there's plenty of evidence that there is some job loss from minimum wages, and those workers are worse off.
HORSLEY: Neumark acknowledges job loss associated with minimum wage hikes is probably less of a problem when unemployment is this low. Kecia Jolley hasn't seen any job cuts at the grocery store where she works. The cashier doubts she'd be getting a raise were it not required by the higher minimum.
JOLLEY: We still need to keep pushing forward because, hopefully, people like me will be able to actually make it every month.
HORSLEY: Jolley says it's a shame when a grocery store worker has to choose between buying food and paying her bills.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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