As McDonald's employees threaten strike along I-95, other CT companies struggle to hire low-wage workers

Labor activists rally in Washington, D.C. on May 19, 2021, in support of a $15 minimum wage law.

Labor activists rally in Washington, D.C. on May 19, 2021, in support of a $15 minimum wage law.

Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

As dozens of McDonald’s workers threaten a strike this week at Interstate 95 rest stops in Connecticut, hundreds of other companies continue looking for help at annualized pay below $15 an hour — the state’s minimum wage two years from now.

As of Tuesday, Indeed.com posted more than 18,000 open jobs in Connecticut at annualized pay at or below $31,000, the amount earned for a full-time job at $15 an hour including paid vacation.

That amounts to nearly one of every three job openings in Connecticut — a significantly worse rate than in New York, where just 23 percent of open jobs topped out at $31,000 a year; and in Massachusetts, where the rate was just 18 percent.

More than half of those jobs are for part-time work, which in many instances limits the amount of benefits for new hires.

In August, Connecticut’s $12 minimum wage will increase to $13; by July 2023, it will reach $15. The minimum wage for restaurant wait staff is set currently at $6.38 an hour; employers are required by law to cover any gap produced by shortfalls in tips on any given shift.

In Connecticut, supermarkets ShopRite and Big Y Foods have the largest number of job openings with annualized pay of $31,000 or less, followed by Dollar General, McDonald’s and Burger King.

In addition to restaurants and retailers, a trio of health and social services agencies — ABI Resources based in Ledyard, Marrakech in Woodbridge and the Kennedy Center in Trumbull — are among the two-dozen with the most openings below $31,000 a year.

As of Tuesday, New Hampshire had the highest percentage of the lowest paying job opportunities in the Northeast, at four of every 10 openings. Among Northeast states, only New Hampshire and Vermont have too few unemployed residents as of mid-April to fill every available job posting on Indeed.

Connecticut is among the majority of states with the opposite problem: the U.S. Department of Labor reported nearly 132,000 Connecticut residents looking for work in April — roughly 74,000 more people than the actual number of job openings statewide posted on Indeed this week.

Jobs paying $15 an hour or less

Northeast states as of May 25, 2021

Openings

Locale

$15/hr or less

All

Percent

Unemployed

Massachusetts

27,648

152,876

18.1%

219,081

New York

62,415

271,836

23.0%

736,306

New Jersey

44,623

145,623

30.6%

315,274

Connecticut

18,333

57,527

31.9%

131,871

Vermont

4,670

13,486

34.6%

9,521

Rhode Island

6,686

17,998

37.1%

26,992

Maine

9,935

25,321

39.2%

35,196

New Hampshire

13,412

33,242

40.3%

20,026

Northeast

187,722

717,909

26.1%

1,494,267

Source: Indeed.com postings on May 25, 2021; U.S. Department of Labor

But as much as quantity, the state needs more higher-paying jobs given high costs of living in Connecticut. In February, the Brookings Institution cited studies suggesting more than 40 percent of families in Connecticut cities were struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.

While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and other programs flooded the economy with cash, households have faced rising prices this spring as well for basics like gas and some food items. In 2024, the year after Connecticut’s minimum wage hits $15 an hour, the state will link the minimum wage to a cost index.

Federal pandemic relief currently includes an extra $300 in weekly unemployment compensation through September, which some employers have blamed on making it harder to hire people for the lowest-paying jobs.

Earlier this month, Gov. Ned. Lamont announced plans to award $1,000 bonuses to people who accept jobs after an extended stretch of time on unemployment compensation.

Some employers have been following suit. After dangling a $2,000 hiring bonus for culinary staff this spring, Mohegan Sun added a $500 bounty this week for housekeeping help.

“I do believe there’s something to the argument that right now people just don’t have the incentive to go back to work — because of COVID No. 1, coming out of a situation where people want to get their lives back to normal,” said Don Klepper-Smith, an economist whose company DataCore Partners is based in New Haven. “They’ll say, ‘look, I’m going to take the summer off’ — and a lot of those jobs are going begging right now.”

On Tuesday, Democrat leaders in the Connecticut House of Representatives said they continue to work on “fair work week schedule” legislation that would discourage employers from changing variable hours with no advance notice to workers. The bill is designed to help part-time workers better manage their week and earnings expectations including in any instances where they are holding additional jobs to make ends meet.

The Connecticut Restaurant Association and other business groups are arguing against any such law, saying it does not reflect the realities small businesses face during shifts when business is unexpectedly light.

“If you bring a worker in who’s supposed to have a nine-hour workday and you send him home two hours early and you don’t pay them — and some of these people are taking public transportation [and] trying to arrange for child care — I’m ... sympathetic to that,” said Rep. Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives, speaking to reporters during a short press conference Tuesday webcast on CT-N. “There has to be a way to make sure those people are in some way ... given some compensation for what’s clearly a very difficult adjustment to their schedule.”

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman