Local businesses feel strain of wage inflation

On both a national and local level, workers in what are traditionally viewed as low-wage industries are seeing major boosts in compensation.

Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain, this week became the latest company to make a splash, committing to a minimum wage of $18.50 per hour for its full-time, hourly staff.

And while those numbers might be eye-popping to some, local employers are not surprised to see these figures continue to trend upward.

“Wages have definitely increased for us,” said Anthony Lehmann, who owns a pair of Burger King restaurants in Dubuque. “It just comes down to the principles of supply and demand.”

Lehmann said the majority of new employees at his restaurants now earn a starting wage of $15 per hour. At the beginning of 2020, these same workers would have been paid about $9 per hour.

Lehmann said other perks, including free meals for employees on their shift, have been introduced in hopes of sweetening the deal.

Not long ago, the prospect of a $15-per-hour fast food job — or a retail job approaching $20 per hour — in this area would have seemed far-fetched to economic experts. That isn’t the case anymore, according to Loren Rice, associate professor of accounting and business at Clarke University.

“At this point, it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “These companies have gone so long without workers. They have essentially had to raise their wages or lose their business.”

Rice acknowledged that wage inflation is affecting certain industries more than others.

“Many of these pay hikes are happening at the bottom of the economic scale,” he said. “Many of the jobs that we would have considered to be front-line workers at the beginning of the pandemic, they are the ones getting the biggest pay increases. This should be helping to bring (some of the gaps in) income inequality closer together.”

Meanwhile, the market-driven hikes in pay have reframed the ongoing minimum wage discussions.

The required minimum wage in Iowa and Wisconsin remains at $7.25 per hour, which is the same as the required federal rate. The minimum wage in Illinois is $11 per hour.

Given current labor market realities, people like Lehmann would never consider paying their staff $7.25 per hour.

“I don’t know of anybody who would dream of paying that,” he said. “We know what the law is, but something that low is just not realistic. The true minimum wage is something that is market driven.”

Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County (Wis.) Economic Development Corp., acknowledged that he keeps an eye on both national headlines and local trends.

He said he isn’t shocked to see the $18.50 per hour promised at Hobby Lobby, noting that at least one national retailer operating in Grant County is offering new hourly employees somewhere in the range of $14 to $16 per hour.

Brisbois noted that companies don’t necessarily want to do this, but they have no choice.

“Businesses have to follow suit,” he said. “They know if employees don’t like their wages at one place, they can run across the street to the other. “

While the labor dynamics have manifested in shorter hours of operation at some businesses and “help wanted” signs at many, a new sign of the times already has started to make its presence known — rising prices.

Lehmann, of Burger King, said this reality has begun to hit home at his restaurants, although not yet to a great extent.

“We have had to increase prices on some items, and we may need to start looking at that again,” Lehmann said. “It is something we are doing on a semi-monthly basis now, looking at, ‘What do we need to do? What do we need to change?’”

As wages continue to tick upward, the labor issues have not yet been resolved.

This phenomenon has surprised Rice.

“With wages this high, I am surprised we don’t have people lined up around the street to go to work,” he said. “I would have thought a lot more would’ve decided to come back by now.”

This reluctance to return to the labor force has compelled Rice to rethink the dynamics of the worker shortage.

“I think a big driver is the fact that (the pandemic) has changed the way we view the world,” he said. “People might be willing to get by with less. They are willing to give up more pay to live a higher quality of life.”