Labor Day is a time to celebrate the contributions workers make to our economy and society, and to be thankful for the sacrifices made by previous generations who won the more humane conditions under which we labor today. The 8-hour work day, for example, and protections against children working full-time.
But this Labor Day there also are reasons not to celebrate. Too many Virginians who want to work still can’t find jobs. And too many who are working can’t make ends meet because the pay for Virginians without a college degree is lower than a generation ago.
While the number of jobs in Virginia as a whole has finally returned to pre-recession levels, we’re still far below the number of jobs needed to keep up with the growth of Virginia’s working-age population. The statewide numbers also obscure the regional disparities across Virginia. For example, there are still 56,000 fewer jobs in the “rest of Virginia” — everywhere outside of Northern Virginia — than before the recession began. That’s a 2 percent drop.
Lynchburg has 8,100 fewer jobs than in 2007; Danville has 2,500 fewer.
For the 60 percent of Virginia workers without a bachelor’s degree, being able to find and keep a job too often doesn’t equate to earning enough to support a family at a decent standard of living. Virginia workers without a bachelor’s degree earn less than similarly-educated workers did 25 years ago, after adjusting for inflation. And the gap between the wages of college-educated workers and other workers has grown sharply.
So, on a holiday created to honor the social and economic achievements of American workers, more needs to be done to rekindle the old idea that anyone willing to put in the effort can find a decent-paying job and support a family in a middle-class lifestyle.
True, that old idea was never equally available to all Virginia workers: Black men as well as women of all races have long faced a job market that pays far less than what it takes to build a middle-class life. But now median wages for all workers without a bachelor’s degree are falling, especially compared to the tremendous gains seen by Virginia workers with at least a bachelor’s degree.
This Labor Day, it’s worth considering how we can work together to make sure all Virginians can find the good jobs they need to support their families and invest in their children’s future.
—Laura Goren, Policy Analyst