Clayton County led the nation in average weekly wage growth in the first three months of this year - a time when most Americans saw little, if any gains, in their paychecks.
Clayton experienced the largest gain - 15.5 percent - in average weekly wages in the nation during the first quarter, eclipsing pay gains among the nation’s 344 largest counties, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report released earlier this month.
Clayton had the only double-digit increase on the list and was three times higher than No. 2 King County, Wash. The first-quarter increase brought the average weekly wage in Clayton to $1,146, up from $976 a week for the same period the year before.
The windfall may have been enjoyed largely by only a certain segment of the county’s 130,000 workers.
The biggest beneficiaries were likely warehouse and distribution workers along with workers at Delta Air Lines, economists said. The airline rewarded its workers earlier this year with the largest employee profit sharing payment in U.S. history, according to Delta CEO Richard Anderson.
But such an historical event is juxtaposed with other economic realities that continue to nag Clayton.
At 6.4 percent, Clayton still has the highest unemployment rate in metro Atlanta.
Still, Clayton’s first-quarter surge in pay occurred at a time when overall U.S. average weekly wages fell 0.5 percent, one of only seven declines since the government began tracking Americans’ wages in 1978. The BLS report noted that “trade, transportation and utilities had the largest impact on (Clayton) county’s average weekly wage growth with an increase of $305 - or 23.7 percent over the year.”
In the last few years, companies such as grocery giant Kroger and Castellini, a food processor and distributor, have opened large distribution centers in Clayton. Distribution and warehousing are the largest employment sectors in Clayton, accounting for about a third of the county’s workforce said Courtney Pogue, Clayton’s economic development director. The average pay for distribution and warehouse workers in Clayton is more than $1,000 a week, Pogue said.
Overall wages for Clayton workers totaled about $3 billion in 2015, up from $2.5 billion in 2014, Pogue said.
“It’s great news,” said the county’s Chief Financial Officer Ramona Bivins. “That means people have more disposable income which means they’ll shop more in the county and that’s good for businesses and that helps our sales tax revenues as well.”
While the news elated Clayton officials, it puzzled some economists.
“I don’t know why that would be,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Steve Rondone said when asked about the huge jump in year-over-year pay in Clayton. But he cited Delta as one possible reason.
In January, Delta paid out $1.5 billion in profit sharing to employees, including $541 million to its 33,000 employees in Atlanta. More than 1,500 Delta employees live in Clayton.
“When big employers in certain counties provide big raises that affects the overall wage increase in that county,” said Rondone who is in the Atlanta regional office.
But an economist who has been tracking Clayton for nearly a decade said the first-quarter gains mean nothing if the momentum doesn’t continue. One in five families in Clayton lived in poverty between 2010 and 2014, the latest government data found.
“It’s a not a bad blip,” said Ali Dadpay, former director of Clayton State University’s Center for Research and Economic Sustainability and Trends.”But Clayton needs to sustain this momentum. If it can stay in the top ten in increasing wages then (the county will) become a much more attractive destination for investors.”
Dadpay tracked Clayton’s ups and downs for about seven years before becoming economics professor at Saint Edward’s University in Austin, Tex. a few months ago.
“For some places like Clayton to get out of the poverty trap is a lengthy process,” Dadpay said. “If they can sustain this increasing wages then the next question is have they translated this into increasing public services such as safety, improvement of the roads and schools and other things that attract new employees and businesses to the area. That’s the next step in helping Clayton climb out of the poverty trap.”
View details of the BLS report at http://www.bls.gov/cew/news.htm.
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