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Many job openings in Montana fail to pay a "living wage" sufficient for people to meet their basic needs without public assistance and leave some money for emergencies and to plan ahead, a new study said.

In Montana, rising costs of health care, housing, utilities and transportation are the main reasons why this "living wage" trails what many Montanans are actually earning, a study by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations said. It's called "Living in the Red: Northwest Family Budgets Falling Behind: 2007 Northwest Job Gap Study."

It concludes that a single Montana adult needs a job with a living wage paying $10.32 an hour to meet basic needs, maintain some ability to deal with emergencies and plan ahead. For a single adult with two children, the study says that "living wage" is $20.97 an hour.

Yet 40 percent of all job openings in Montana pay less than the $10.32 an hour living wage for a single person, the study found, while 80 percent of job openings paid less than the $20.97 needed for a family that includes one working parent and two children.

An average of four people apply for every job opening that pays more than the $10.32 an hour living wage for a single adult, the report said, while 11 people seek every open job paying a living wage of at least $20.97 an hour for a single adult and two children.

A major cause of the wage gap is rising health care costs, the study said.

Montana's median wage -- the middle number between the two extremes -- has increased by 9.1 percent from 2002 to 2006, the study said. Yet over the same period, health care costs for a single person have shot up by 44.9 percent and the cost of living has risen by 19.7 percent.

"I think it's pretty clear that Montana needs to join the rest of the industrialized world and be a role model for the rest of our country and make it a priority to provide access to affordable, quality health care," said state Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, executive director of an anti-poverty group, Working for Economic Empowerment and Liberation.

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More than half of Montana's personal bankruptcies are caused by a medical crisis facing a family, she said. About three-fourths of these families had health insurance when the crisis started.

"So I think it's pretty clear that Montana could make a choice that would help businesses, help the economy, help our young people who have the highest rate of uninjured and help the health of our people," Caferro said.

Jacquie Helt, president of the Montana AFL-CIO and executive officer of UNITE HERE Local 427 representing hotel and restaurant employees, said she continues to be frustrated with the situation, despite the success of unions and their allies in passing a 2006 initiative to raise Montana's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour. It will rise to an hourly rate of $6.25 in January 2008, and match the federal wage of $6.55 an hour in July 2008, she said.

"Given the fact that we went for so many years without any increase -- 10 years -- in the state or federal minimum wage, we're playing catch-up," she said. "This is certainly a step in the right direction, but it can't be the only step."

Montana Labor Commissioner Keith Kelly told the federation, "We've got a lot more work to do to provide a living wage for many of our residents."

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