Pay Hikes for County Wage Earners Drop to Lowest Level in Decade

Times Staff Writer

Wage earners in Orange County saw their lowest pay increases in a decade during 1984, according to a survey released Monday by the federal Labor Department.

The survey tracked Orange County wage trends for a 12-month period that ended in October and found that in four broad employment categories, average pay hikes continued a decline that began in 1982.

The survey did not calculate an average rate of increase for all wage earners, but the average for the four categories was 3.4%, nearly 1.5 percentage points lower than the inflation rate. Thus, except for the high of a 5.1% average pay hike for clerical workers, wage increases in the county did not even keep pace with increases in the Consumer Price Index, which rose 5% in Orange County from October, 1983 to October, 1984.

The survey found that skilled craftsmen and factory workers received average pay hikes of 4%, compared to a 6% increase in 1983. An average hike of 5.1% for clerical workers was down only slightly from 5.4% the year before.

Employees in computer-related industries and unskilled factory workers netted both the smallest wage increases and the largest year-to-year declines in the size of their pay hikes. Computer workers received average increases of 2.6%, down from 6.1% in 1983, while pay for unskilled factory workers rose by only 1.9%, down from 7.2% the year before.

The Labor Department offered no explanations for the diminishing rate of wage increases, but several employment and wage specialists said the lower pay hikes reflected a local labor surplus in some areas, generally lower national labor union wage settlements and the moderate growth of the CPI, to which most wage increases are tied.

In a separate study released Monday, the federal Commerce Department said non-farm personal income in California as a whole rose 2.4% in the third quarter of 1984, the seventh-largest gain in the 50 states. Separate figures for individual counties were not available.

'CPI Not Moving As Fast'

Commenting on the Orange County wage figures, Laraine Engel, research director for the Merchants and Manufacturers Assn. of California, said a major reason for the lower increases is that "the CPI has not moved as fast as in the past."

Another reason, she said, is "the impact of national labor union contracts, (which) averaged about 2.4% in '84, the lowest (wage hikes) in two decades. A lot of non-union employers take their cues from union pacts."

"And there has been a fairly large labor pool in Orange County" that has created a buyers' market for employers in some areas, especially in computer-related fields, Engel added.

Although wage increases have slowed down, Orange County wage levels still generally outstrip the U.S. average, according to the Labor Department survey.

During 1983, the latest year for which national figures are available, wages in Orange County exceeded the national average by 10% for computer-related occupations, 7% for office/clerical occupations and 2% for skilled maintenance occupations.

Wages for the county's unskilled plant workers, however, were 1% below the U.S. average in 1983. And in the 1984 pay survey, unskilled workers' wages increased an average of 1.9%. And in at least one area--entry-level security guard jobs--there was an actual wage rollback, the study showed. In the 1983 survey, entry-level guards earned an average of $5 per hour in Orange County, whereas the 1984 study shows the average hourly wage to be only $4.70.

Office clerical workers received the largest average increase, 5.1%, but that still was the lowest hike since 1975, when separate records first became available for Orange County.

Earnings for skilled maintenance workers rose an average of 4% in the 1983-84 period, the fourth consecutive year of slower wage growth for this category.

Workers in computer-related occupations also have seen their earnings rise at a considerably slower rate in the last two years, with a plunge to 2.6% in 1984--down from 6.1% the year before.

Salaries for the 23 office clerical occupations included in the survey ranged from a high of $497 per week for executive secretaries to a low of $214 per week for entry-level file clerks.

Of the 18 professional and technical occupations in the "computer-related" category, the highest pay was $667 per week for senior systems analysts and the lowest was $285.50 per week for computer data librarians.

In the skilled and unskilled factory worker categories, 26 occupations were studied. Journeymen machine tool operators, at $13.91 per hour, earned the highest rate, while lower-level guards received the lowest rate, $4.70 per hour.

Annual percent rise in average earnings in Orange County 1975-84

Year ended Office Computer Skilled Unskilled October clerical related maintenance plant 1975 8.1 6.2 8.7 5.3 1976 6.6 5.9 8.0 10.6 1977 7.7 6.3 8.0 5.5 1978 8.6 4.3 8.9 6.9 1979 8.8 5.2 9.5 8.7 1980 9.7 9.1 10.6 8.0 1981 10.2 10.5 9.0 8.7 1982 8.2 10.5 7.9 6.6 1983 5.4 6.1 6.0 7.2 1984 5.1 2.6 4.0 1.9

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

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