Wages vs. Productivity

For most Washington workers, wages have barely budged in 40 years, despite productivity gains

Since 1979, wages for the bottom 60 percent of Washington workers have increased $1/hour — or less! — after adjusting for inflation; meanwhile, the top 10 percent have seen hourly wages jump nearly $18/hour.[1]


It’s not for lack of economic growth. Between 1979 and 2016 (date of latest available data), Washington’s economic productivity increased more than 53 percent – but median compensation (where 50 percent of wage earners earn less, and 50 percent earn more) grew just 2.6 percent, as the benefits of growth flowed increasingly to the top in the form of higher wages and corporate profits.[2],[3]

It hasn’t always been this way. Throughout the 1980’s, the relative difference in hourly wages between high- and low-wage workers was relatively stable in Washington – ranging from $25 to $27/hour (top 10 percent vs. lowest 10 percent), and $16 to $18/hour (top 10 percent vs. bottom 50 percent).

That’s not to say all was well during this time. While wages fluctuated – and on net, declined to some degree for workers at all levels – as a percentage of their hourly wage, the lowest-paid 20 percent of workers (who were earning less to begin with) saw bigger drops and smaller increases in pay than did those in higher wage brackets. Washington’s landmark voter-approved 1998 minimum wage law helped limit losses for low-wage workers, and in 2017 (after another voter-approved minimum wage increase), the lowest-paid 20 percent of workers have finally begun to make some headway.[4]

But during the 1990s, the wage gap between the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent in Washington began to grow, eventually matching U.S. levels; by 2001, the gap between the top 10 percent and bottom 50 percent had done the same. That trend intensified in the years leading up to the Great Recession, as the state’s top 10 percent/bottom 10 percent gap began growing faster than that of the U.S. In the years since the Great Recession, the top 10 percent/bottom 50 percent gap has also grown much faster in Washington than nationwide.

As of 2018, the difference in hourly wages between high- and low-wage workers in Washington exceeds $33/hour (top 10 percent vs. bottom 50 percent) and $43/hour (top 10 percent vs. lowest 10 percent) – far outpacing the U.S. as a whole.



[1] “Wages” include only hourly or salaried remuneration to employees.

[2] “Compensation” includes wage and salary disbursements, as well as supplements such as employer contributions for employee retirement plans, health coverage and social insurance. Note that to the extent that increased costs for health coverage represents only inflation, it is not an added benefit for employees, though it is included in measures of compensation.

[3] Sources: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real GDP by state, All industry total. Economic Policy Institute analysis of unpublished total economy data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Productivity and costs program; employment data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics; wage data from the Current Population Survey and compensation data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, State/National Income and Product Accounts public data series.

[4] Initiative 688 (approved by Washington voters in 1998) increased the minimum wage and required Washington state to make a yearly cost-of-living adjustment to the minimum wage starting in 2001. Initiative 1433 (approved by Washington voters in 2016) requires a statewide minimum wage of $11.00 in 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12.00 in 2019, and $13.50 in 2020. Beginning in 2021, the minimum wage will receive a yearly cost-of-living adjustment.

  • Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More To Read

State of Working Washington

May 6, 2019

Why most Washington workers won’t be ready for the next (inevitable) recession

Decades of meager wage growth, cost-of-living increases and an unjust tax system make it impossible to get ahead

State of Working Washington

December 6, 2018

Higher costs are straining family budgets in Washington

The State of Working Washington 2018: Part 4

State of Working Washington

November 14, 2018

What’s keeping wages down and driving inequality up in Washington

The State of Working Washington 2018: Part 3