Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: Most Californians’ paychecks are falling further behind

David Lazo, 5, center, with his father, Francisco, right, raises a dollar bill as workers await the Los Angeles City Council’s vote in June to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. The pay gap is growing between most California workers and high-wage earners.
David Lazo, 5, center, with his father, Francisco, right, raises a dollar bill as workers await the Los Angeles City Council’s vote in June to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. The pay gap is growing between most California workers and high-wage earners. The Associated Press

Are some jobs really that much more valuable to our society than others?

Absolutely, says the free market. Some work requires advanced education and some skills are more in demand, so they should get rewarded with much higher wages.

But one result of huge differences in our paychecks is growing income inequality.

The California Budget & Policy Center is the latest to sound the warning, with a study spotlighting that the economic recovery has not boosted wages for the vast majority. Last year, the median-wage worker made $19 an hour ($39,520 annually), 2 percent less than in 2011 and 6 percent less than 2006, adjusting for inflation.

Consequently, the gap with high-wage workers continues to widen. A worker at the 90th percentile made $50 an hour last year ($104,000 annually). And those in the top 1 percent make more in one week than what many middle-income Californians earn in a full year.

“Even at a time when workers are better trained, more educated and more productive than ever, California’s median wage continues to lose ground, and wage inequality continues to worsen,” the budget center says.

So I decided to look up the wages for different kinds of jobs in California. I had a pretty good idea of the ballpark figures, but seeing the precise numbers – and how wide the gap really is – is still eye-opening.

Doctors and lawyers, of course, make boatloads of money. Their median hourly wages are $90-plus and nearly $70, respectively. Computer geeks do well; software developers come in at $56 an hour and programmers at $42. Management and business types generally make between $30 and $50 per hour.

Toward the middle, auto mechanics and truck drivers earn a median wage of $20 an hour, and construction laborers and customer service reps about $18.

Closer toward the bottom, janitors earn about $12 an hour and retail salespeople a little more than $11, while many food service workers don’t crack $10 an hour.

Many white-collar occupations pay more than blue-collar ones; many “pink-collar” jobs dominated by women are also at the low end. That’s a big part of the gender pay gap – in California, women make 84 cents for every $1 a man makes for similar work.

On Thursday, the state Assembly approved Senate Bill 358, what would be the strongest equal pay law in the nation. It’s back to the Senate for concurrence before heading to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

But a key Assembly committee stalled a bill to raise the state minimum wage for all workers, beyond the $10 an hour it’s already set to reach on Jan. 1. So it may have to be done by initiative next November.

If the minimum wage does rise, it would cover lots of jobs in the service economy. Some of the lowest paid workers are those who help people at their most vulnerable (home health aides) and who help children (day care workers).

What does that say about what we really value?

By the numbers

Median hourly wages for selected occupations in California:

  • Lawyers, $69.53
  • Software developers, $56.35
  • Sales managers, $55.68
  • Civil engineers, $47.88
  • Registered nurses, $47.03
  • Computer programmers, $41.93
  • Accountants and auditors, $34.71
  • Truck drivers, $20.23
  • Automotive service technicians, $19.73
  • Construction laborers, $18.33
  • Customer service representatives, $17.92
  • Office clerks, $15.22
  • Preschool teachers, $15.20
  • Nursing assistants, $13.87
  • Janitors and cleaners, $12.02
  • Child care workers, $11.34
  • Retail salespersons, $11.32
  • Personal care aides, $10.57
  • Waiters and waitresses, $9.62
  • Fast food workers, $9.37

Source: California Employment Development Department

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