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Workers paid more today, but productivity outpaces pay

Workers paid more today, but productivity outpaces pay


Workers paid more today, but productivity outpaces pay


This Monday marks the 125th anniversary of Labor Day.

In 1894, Congress passed – and President Grover Cleveland signed – an act making the first Monday in September each year a legal holiday dedicated the achievements of American workers.

While there’s some dispute about which labor organization should be credited with the holiday’s birth, according to historical notes on the Labor Department’s website, it’s thanks to labor unions that most of us get this three-day holiday.

Regardless, the Central Labor Union began celebrating Labor Day in New York City in 1882, before states began passing legislation supporting the holiday.

Workers have faced enormous change over the decades. The civilian labor force (aged 16-up, people working and looking for jobs) has grown from 60.1 million in January 1948 to 163.4 million in July 2019, according to government statistics.

However, the labor force participation rate (those within the civilian labor force who actually work) has had peaks and valleys. Back in January 1948, the labor force participation rate was about 59%. It hit an all-time high January-April 2000 of 67.3%. Since then it has declined and is at 63% as of July 2019.

Other facts about labor in the U.S.

Union membership. While union membership peaked in 1979 when nearly 21 million were members, the percentage of workers who belonged to unions actually hit a high of 28.3% of all those employed in 1954, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Today, only about 10.5% of workers belong to unions, but the percentage of workers represented by unions is a bit higher, 11.7%, as about 1.6 million non-union workers are covered by union contracts, according to the Pew Research Center.Overall, there were 14.7 million union members in the U.S. last year. 

Wages. Over the last two decades, the seasonally-adjusted median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers has risen 60% from $568 in the first quarter of 2000 to $911 in the second quarter of 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Benefits are not included in the weekly earnings figure.)

From 1979 to 2018, the hourly pay of typical workers has increased only 11.6% (after adjusting for inflation. At the same time, productivity rose nearly 70%, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

The hourly wage of the median worker — who makes more than half the population, but less than the other half — was $17.41 in 2000. That has risen 5% to $18.28 in 2017, the institute says. Meanwhile, the highest paid workers in the 95th percentile saw hourly wages rise 21% from $49.36 to $59.95 during those years.

Employment. Employment in the U.S. increased to 60.7% in July 2019. That’s still a bit off the all-time high of 64.7% in April 2000, according to, which tracks BLS data. 

The U.S. employment rate averaged 59.4% from 1950 until 2019, with a record low of 55% in July 1954.

Unemployment. The unemployment rate in July 2019 was 3.7%, just above a 50-year low, the Labor Department said. The unemployment rate averaged 5.75% from 1948 until 2019, according to The highest unemployment rate on record was 10.8% in November 1982. The record low: 2.5% in May 1953.

Self-employed. About 16 million in the U.S. are their own bosses, says Pew Research citing federal labor data.  However, the self-employed and workers they hire account for about 30% of the workforce. 

Millennials at work. Millennials, those aged 23-38, now make up the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, making up more than one-third (35%, or 56 million) of workers, according to Pew. In comparison, there are about 53 million GenXers (ages 39-54) and 41 million Boomers (ages 55-75) in the work force.

Aging in the work force. More Americans aged 65-up are working now than in the previous two decades. Older workers made up 6.6% of employed Americans in July 2019, up from 3% in July 2000, according to Pew.

Banking those checks. The typical checking account has been stable since 2001. That year, the median checking balance was $2,758, according to ValuePenguin/LendingTree, based on Federal Reserve data. In 2016, the most recent year available, it had risen to $3,400. In between those years the balance rose to $3,368 in 2007, but dipped to $2,143 in 2010 during the economic recession.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.


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