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Leaving low wage jobs behind

I read an article recently about a new partnership between Calhoun Community College in Huntsville, AL and Senior Helpers, a health-related staffing service. A local TV station interviewed a CCC flack regarding what are undoubtedly low wage job opportunities for Certified Nursing Assistants, specifically those providing in-home care.

There are a lot of open positions for in-home health aides, and that’s likely to be the case for a long time. With the Baby Boomers retiring, the demand for in-home care will last for years. But that’s only part of the picture. In-home care providers in Alabama earn between $8.50 and $14.50 per hour. Alabama subscribes to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. That means the minimum wage in Alabama hasn’t gone up since 2009. In today’s dollars, the $7.25 federal minimum wage represents a $1.77 per hour pay cut for low wage workers.

According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a single person in Huntsville, AL needs to make at least $13.50 per hour to get by. So, most in-home care providers in Huntsville cannot earn enough to live in Huntsville, even working full-time. In fact, a person earning $8.50 per hour would have to work nearly 64 hours per week to earn Huntsville’s living wage. It’s no wonder there are so many job openings for CNAs in Huntsville.

This labor shortage isn’t unique to Huntsville, though. In Ann Arbor, the average CNA makes about $14 per hour. Ann Arbor’s living wage is $15.62. The average CNA here would need to work 45 hours per week to earn Ann Arbor’s living wage. Over the course of a year, that’s an extra month-and-a-half.

Low wage employers get stung

Unfortunately, institutions like Calhoun Community College (and Washtenaw Community College, for that matter) perpetuate the trap of minimum wage work. Every community in the United States needs in-home health care workers. No community in the United States needs people working full-time who don’t earn enough to avoid poverty.

Corporations like WalMart, Amazon and McDonald’s learned long ago that minimizing worker pay to the point of poverty among their full-time workers drew a lot of unwanted attention. Some states even sued companies whose full-time employees applied for (and received) food stamps, rent vouchers, Medicaid and other entitlements. Fully employed workers who qualify for state entitlements make a loud statement about their employers.

Shut down the low wage occupational programs

Academic programs that feed graduates into low salary careers should receive the same negative attention that WalMart and Amazon did. And community colleges should be held to account for producing programs (credit and non-credit) that lead workers into low wage employment. Based on poverty data, one in three impoverished people will escape poverty in any given year. That’s actually the good news. The bad news is that about half of people who escape poverty will return to it within five years.
That’s why it’s essential to get community colleges out of the business of generating low wage workers.

Many community colleges (like CCC and WCC) frame this tactic as a “partnership” with a local employer. Chronically low paying work is as close as legitimate employers will get to modern day slavery. Working 60+ hours per week just to pay the bills means that one has less time to engage in activities that will actually allow them to exit poverty permanently.

“Any job is better than no job,” is a bad way to look at the issue. A skill set that can demand at least a living wage means that fewer people will return to poverty. WCC should focus on living-wage academic and career training programs, and let the free market take care of low wage employers.

Photo Credit: Images Money , via Flickr