Rising pay for tech workers coupled with layoffs affecting many low-wage Washingtonians during the pandemic led to an average wage of $76,741 last year, according to a state report released Tuesday.
The Employment Securities Department reported the average annual wage paid to a Washington worker was a record-breaking increase of 10.1% from the year prior. But that calculation divides the actual amount paid to workers by the number of people employed, and the state saw a reduction of its workforce by 164,161 people during the pandemic year.
"If you just looked at the 10.1%, you'd say, gee, this looks like a great economy," said Paul Turek, the state labor economist for the Employment Securities Department. But the country remains in a recession, and job losses in 2020 largely affected businesses dependent on face-to-face interaction, which also tended to pay lower wages, Turek said.
The $76,741 figure represents the entire state of Washington. Spokane County has typically lagged behind the state average wage, said Patrick Jones, an economist and executive director of the Institute of Public Policy & Analysis at Eastern Washington University.
For example, the average wage in Washington in 2019 was $69,615. In Spokane County, it was $50,234. The department's numbers indicate the largest wage increases occurred in information and retail, industries largely clustered in Western Washington.
"That's Google. That's Facebook. That's Microsoft," Jones said of the information category. Amazon falls under retail.
The good news for those who remain out of work in Spokane County — a rate that stood at 6.1% in April — is that the amount paid in weekly unemployment benefits is tied to the average wage number. So, as that number increases, so too does the amount that someone receiving unemployment support receives.
That means the minimum weekly unemployment benefit for claims filed after July 4 will increase from $201 to $295, and the maximum from $844 to $929, according to a department news release.
The current recession differs from the one 10 years ago in large part due to technology, Turek and Jones said. The total amount paid to workers increased from 2019 to 2020, in part because high-paid employees could remain at home and work remotely. Those in face-to-face jobs, whether in hospitality, retail or otherwise, likely couldn't work due to the shuttering of businesses by health order, leading to the unprecedented double-digit increase in average wage.
"We're at a different point in our economy (than) in 2008 and 2009 in the ability to do remote work," Jones said. "The burden was disproportionately on people who couldn't work remotely."
Jones drew a clear distinction between average wage and "wages," however. Just because the average amount increased, that doesn't mean pay went up for everyone.
"It's just the mathematics of creating an average," he said.