An annual review of conditions for Ohio’s workers shows signs of improvement in some areas. But the report from the progressive group Policy Matters Ohio says there are still plenty of problem areas.
For the first time in several years, Amy Hanauer with Policy Matters Ohio sounds upbeat about the data in her group’s annual State of Working Ohio report. “I would still say that there aren’t enough jobs in Ohio and the jobs aren’t high enough quality, but at the end of 2016, they were better than the year before. And that’s the direction we want to see things going in,” said Hanauer.
The report notes unemployment in Ohio was below 5% last year, and wage growth was up for a second year in a row, for the first time in more than a decade. And Hanauer said while that’s great, in the past, that was expected. “It was a given that every year, you would see workers increasing their wages. So I am happy to have two solid years of growth, but it’s not – it’s the way it should be,” Hanauer said.
Though he sees things from the other side of the political spectrum, the data also pleases Greg Lawson at the conservative Buckeye Institute. “Ohio has climbed out of the absolute pit that it had fallen in as a result of, quite frankly, the last two recessions,” said Lawson.
But there are still plenty of concerns about Ohio’s economy. Both Lawson and Hanauer say they’re troubled by the number of people in the workforce. Hanauer said the labor participation rate is only slightly improved from last year’s record low, which she said means not enough people who were downsized or lost jobs are being lured back into seeking work. And the wage growth numbers still have Hanauer frustrated, since she said worker productivity has increased much more than pay. And Hanauer also said 11 of the 13 most common full-time, year-round occupations in Ohio – food prep, cashiers, wait staff – pay less than $34,000 a year. “We like to talk about a high-tech economy or a high-skills economy. But the fact is, for the jobs that most people have, they’re pretty low pay.”
Hanauer said for workers to survive at that rate, the state needs to make it easier for people to qualify for child care assistance, and that the state should spend more on preschool and public transit. But Lawson said he is concerned about the “cliffs” where workers lose access to benefits when they make more money, which he says is a disincentive to work. And he said he also wants the state to focus on education in training and tech schools. “We’ve got to start doing a better job of doing that. And that doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money,” Lawson said. “It means reprioritizing and repurposing money that’s in the system in such a way that we can revitalize some of those programs and get people jobs out of school – high school, in this case – that are really strong wage jobs.”
The improvements that the report praises have come under Republican leadership at the Statehouse. Lawmakers have cut taxes and made other economic policy changes, and are considering bills on the state’s unemployment fund, business regulations and workers’ compensation. But Lawson says he wants more sweeping changes. “The problem is, we don’t get much reform. We get what’s called reform. But it’s really just tinkering around the edges. It’s nothing systematic,” Lawson said. “So the reality is we still have a lot of reforms that we’ve been talking about for years that are still kind of on the shelf gathering dust, and we need to get them off the shelf.”
But Hanauer’s group has long been concerned about tax cuts tipping too far toward wealthy Ohioans. And she’s also worried about some Republicans’ interest in so-called right to work laws. She said union membership often leads to better worker pay and benefits such as pensions and paid time off. “We really want to be doing more to make it easier for people to join unions, not harder,” Hanauer said. “We also continue to see that more educated workers do better. So I think we ought to be doing more to make sure that working class kids can get that higher education.”
Hanauer said it’s those things could help fix wage inequality in Ohio – pay gaps that show up by race, by gender and by region. But Lawson says inequality could be evened out by making the changes he wants, which he said would grow the economy overall.