For Labor Day, COWS has released the State of Working Wisconsin 2023, offering the most recent data available on jobs, wages, and unions in the state. Workers have some good news to celebrate: the past 12 months held strong job growth and low unemployment. But while wages grew, most workers’ wages didn’t rise fast enough to stay ahead of high inflation. Further, Wisconsin is still beset by inequality but, importantly, racial disparities in wages and unemployment are shrinking.
“Steady job growth and historically low unemployment are good news for working Wisconsin,” said COWS Director Joel Rogers. “It is especially good to see Wisconsin’s extreme racial inequality on the decline.”
Wisconsin’s Labor Market Sets Records in 2023
Jobs in the state reached a record high of 3,007,200 in July. Wisconsin’s unemployment has been consistently below 3% and reached a record low of 2.4% in April and May. Tight labor markets provide workers with opportunity and leverage.
Troubling Decline in Wisconsin Women’s High Rate of Work
Women in Wisconsin have consistently worked at rates above the national rate, but the advantage is shrinking. In 2022, Wisconsin’s women’s labor force participation dipped below 60% for the first time since the late 1980s. Supporting women’s work – perhaps especially through child care investments – appears to be increasingly important.
Inflation in 2022 Ends a Decade of Real Wage Growth
Wisconsin’s 2022 median hourly wage was $22.02. Wages grew in 2022, but not fast enough to keep pace with inflation so purchasing power dropped for the first time in a decade. Workers have used the leverage provided by tight labor markets to improve wages, but wages did not keep up with inflation in 2022.
Deep Economic Inequalities Slightly Reduced
Wisconsin has substantial racial economic disparity. For example, the median wage for Black women ($17.00), is fully 33% below white men’s median ($25.01). Also, Black unemployment is 4.7%, nearly twice the white rate (2.4%).
Recently, these disparities have fallen. From 2019-22, white workers’ wages have only kept up with inflation while Black and Hispanic workers’ wages have grown more strongly. Additionally, Black unemployment fell last year, while white unemployment held steady. Inequality in Wisconsin remains substantial, but the gaps are shrinking.
Wisconsin’s Union Decline is Worst in the Midwest
From 2011-2022, Wisconsin unionization fell from 14 to 8 percent, a collapse that is three times faster than national union decline and the most extreme in the region. State policy has made unionization much harder. Despite the unfavorable policy environment, support for and interest in unions is growing. Unions help rebalance power in worksites and in society.
“Workers are seizing the opportunity provided by tight labor markets to find better jobs or improve the ones they are staying in,” stated COWS Associate Director Laura Dresser. “It’s especially evident that workers with lower wages have made the strongest gains. Their progress is helping reduce some of Wisconsin’s most troubling inequities.”
View the State of Working Wisconsin 2023 at: workingwi.org.
View previous State of Working Wisconsin reports at: cows.org/state-of-working-wisconsin-reports.
Based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, COWS is a national think-and-do tank that promotes “high road” solutions to social problems. These treat shared growth and opportunity, environmental sustainability, and resilient democratic institutions as necessary and achievable complements of human development. COWS is nonpartisan but values-based. We seek a world of equal opportunity and security for all.