Bottom Rung: Living On Low Wages In Idaho

Credit Robert Couse-Baker / Flickr Creative Commons

The share of Idaho workers earning minimum wage has grown from 5 percent in 2011 to 7.7 percent in 2012. The growth has put Idaho in the top spot for the largest share of minimum wage workers in the country.

How did that happen? And what’s being done to reverse the trend?

Our series Bottom Rung will try to answer those questions, and introduce you to the people living on low wages and consuming Idaho services, and experts who monitor these trends.

McDonalds Minimum Wage
Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

The border between Washington and Idaho is like a petri dish for what the minimum wage does to the economy. That’s where two extremes meet. Idaho has the federal minimum wage: $7.25 an hour. While Washington’s is nearly $2 more.

Call Center Job Fair
Molly Messick / Boise State Public Radio

Bob Lokken, CEO of Boise-based WhiteCloud Analytics, is three years into building his new company. It designs software for health care professionals with the aim of allowing doctors and others to interrogate vast amounts of health care data. Lokken founded it after his previous company, ProClarity Corporation, was bought by Microsoft.

Recently, he showed me around the downtown office where software developers work intently behind large computer screens. I wasn’t there to talk about better health outcomes through guided data analysis; I was there to talk about Idaho’s workforce.

Construction Worker
Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Not long ago, you could hear the buzz of power saws all over the Treasure Valley. It was punctuated by the steady rhythm of hammers and nail guns. More than 10,000 homes went up in Ada and Canyon counties in the two years before the recession hit. Then, the sound stopped.

“’08 and ’09 were really hard,” says Aaron Wright of Steelhead Construction. He founded the siding and remodeling company as Idaho’s housing boom took hold. At the peak, Wright employed more than 30 people. When the market crashed, he scaled back to three.

Jordyn Skinner, Franco's Pizzeria, Minimum Wage
Emilie Ritter Saunders / StateImpact Idaho

There’s a brand new pizza joint in southeast Boise. It’s nestled in a mini-strip mall with a gas station, dry cleaner and hair salon.

On a recent Friday evening, Franco’s Pizzeria was just starting to pick up. It’s a tiny place. The cash register is only a few steps away from the industrial pizza ovens. There are a handful of tables and stools inside for someone who just wants a quick slice.

John, Cash
Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Wages are lower in Idaho than in nearly ever other state. That’s often chalked up to Idaho’s rural nature and low cost of living. But recently, the state has lost ground.

Oregon’s Labor Commissioner has been invited to testify before a congressional committee Thursday in support of raising the federal minimum wage.  Oregon’s model could work for the rest of the nation.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. It would now be $10.59 an hour if it had kept up with inflation during the past 40 years. Under Oregon’s voter-approved law, the state’s minimum wage is affected by the consumer price index. It increased to $8.95 at the beginning of this year.