Operations managers, aerospace engineers, physical therapists and corrections officers have been getting raises that keep them ahead of inflation.
But for most jobs, and for most workers in Connecticut this Labor Day, pay has risen so slowly since the recession began in 2007 that they're just treading water. From May 2007 to May 2012, wages hardly kept up with inflation.
The median pay — the midpoint where half of all workers earn more, half less — for Connecticut's 1.6 million workers fell 0.3 percent in those five years, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2012, the halfway mark in wages was $20.20 an hour — 7 cents less than in 2007, taking inflation into account.
Kathryn Kobe, a senior economist at Economic Consulting Services, said wage stagnation or deflation is common in times of high unemployment.
"What's going to trigger wage increases is businesses having to bid people away from jobs they're already in," said Kobe, who does quarterly projections of wage inflation for Bloomberg, a financial news service.
Even though many hires today are of people who already have jobs, both hiring managers and job candidates know the balance of power is with the employer.
"You're not demanding higher wages, because it's so scary out there," Kobe said.
When unemployment is low, workers have more leverage and can say: "I'm not going to take that job unless you pay me 10 percent more."
Collette Sykes sees these forces at play at the rehab facilities where she has worked, supervising dietary aides and helping the dietitian with meal planning. Before the recession, she'd get six to eight applicants for an opening. Now, even a job to cover just three hours on Sunday gets dozens of candidates. More than 50 applicants is normal. "People are just so desperate, they're applying for anything," she said.
The terrible economy is putting downward pressure on wages, she said. The company knows it can offer less than it used to, because people will take it. The median pay for this job category in Connecticut is now $10.11 an hour, 4 percent lower than it was five years ago.
Stagnant wages always accompany poor job markets, and economists do not project a dramatic turnaround in the near future. But when the job market returns to normal, how widely wage gains will be shared is in question.
Who's Falling Behind?
Generally, the higher-paid you are, the more likely pay in your job category is growing faster than inflation. Only the top 20 percent of earners in Connecticut — those paid more than $75,000 a year last year — gained ground, according to Census data analyzed by Connecticut Voices for Children.
In the detailed data by occupations, 49 percent of all jobs had wage gains faster than inflation during the five-year period. But for the jobs in the top 20 percent of wage distribution, more than 70 percent gained ground.
In some fields, the pay of the typical worker fell substantially. About 100 of 600 jobs tracked had pay drops of 11 percent or more, including biomedical engineers, retail sales clerks, CNC machine tool operators, office machine repairers, insurance sales and real estate agents, history professors, landscape architects, reporters, editors and TV camera operators.
If someone was paid $40,000 a year in 2007 and $40,000 in 2012, that individual's same salary would buy 10.5 percent less, because that's how much inflation rose over the five years.
The sharpest drop in pay in Connecticut was among TV and movie camera operators. Half of those employees made less than $12.20 an hour in 2012. Five years earlier, the pay was double that, the Labor Department data show.
In occupations where there were large drops, that doesn't mean that an individual's pay was cut, or that a specific machine operator lost his job and later found one at a factory that pays far less. Instead, big drops in pay within a job category are largely due to companies offering buyouts to older, more expensive employees — or laying them off — and either not replacing them or replacing them with younger, less expensive staff or contract workers.
"That happens in any recession," Kobe said.
Pay can also drop in an occupation when competition intensifies. That appears to be happening to private detectives, where the numbers have roughly doubled over the five-year period, reaching about 620 in 2012.