Abstract: Is $15 Enough?: Understanding the Struggles of Low Wage Workers (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Is $15 Enough?: Understanding the Struggles of Low Wage Workers

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Independence BR F, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Soobin Kim, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Jihee Woo, MSW, PhD Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Jeffrey Shook, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, PA
Kess Ballentine, MA, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Sara Goodkind, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Rafael Engel, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Sandy Wexler, PhD, Consultant, University of Pittsburgh, PA
Background and Purpose: Attention to the struggles of low wage workers has increased over the last decade. Spurred in part by the Fight for $15 this attention has both revealed the struggles of many lower wage workers and has produced increases in the minimum wage in numerous places as well as increased pressure on large employers to raise wages. Nevertheless, questions remain about whether simply raising the wage to $15 an hour is really enough. Existing data suggest that over 40% of the U.S. households are a $400 emergency away from crisis and that many workers experience numerous hardships in their daily lives. In addition to the constant efforts to push hourly wages toward $15, it is important to understand the experiences of lower wage workers and whether $15 an hour is sufficient to help them make ends meet.

Methods: This paper uses data from a survey of hospital service workers in Western Pennsylvania (N=330). The hospital workers are part of a local hospital that organized a union and negotiated a contract that will eventually bring starting salaries up to $15 an hour. For this paper, workers were split into hourly wage quartiles: Group 1 [less than $12.50], Group 2 [$12.51-$15.20], Group 3 [$15.21-$18.50], and Group 4 [$18.51 and above]. Bivariate analyses including t-tests and ANOVA were conducted exploring differences between the groups including demographics, hardships, public benefit use, perceived stress, life satisfaction and health.

Results: Results indicate that Group 4 had significantly fewer hardships, less reliance on a range of strategies, less stress, better self-reported health, and more satisfaction than all three other groups. Workers in Group 4 reported almost no use of public benefits and significantly lower overall use of other strategies to make ends meet. In fact, they experienced very similar levels of housing, food, financial and medical hardships as those in Group 1 and 2, and in some cases higher levels of hardships (medical debt). Surprisingly, Group 3 did not differ from Group 1 or 2 across most hardship measures. At the same time, workers in Group 3 had lower use of public support, used pawnshops and payday lenders more, and utilized less family support than workers in Groups 1 and 2. Workers in Group 3 were over 90% women, older than the other three groups, had the highest percentage of workers of color, and had the most experience in the health care industry and at this hospital.

Discussion: These results indicate that the question of whether $15 is enough is nuanced. While overall workers making more than $15 experience fewer hardships, many workers currently making more than $15 an hour have spent their working careers working for relatively low wages and have accumulated a range of hardships. The results of this study show that while the push for raising hourly wages to $15 is important, there is a need to think about other ways to support workers, even those making above $15 an hour.