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News / Business / Clark County Business

Battle Ground family among many that struggle as wages stagnate

Income, wage inequality has gotten worse, is expected to continue and is increasingly difficult on the short end of the divide, where paychecks have stagnated

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 1, 2018, 6:00am
4 Photos
Chris and Jennifer Waller stand in the Walmart parking lot in Battle Ground after a shopping trip. The family is one of many in Clark County who earn below the median wage and have not seen wages rise even as the economy as thrived.
Chris and Jennifer Waller stand in the Walmart parking lot in Battle Ground after a shopping trip. The family is one of many in Clark County who earn below the median wage and have not seen wages rise even as the economy as thrived. Photo Gallery

BATTLE GROUND — Compared with juggling four kids younger than 14, asking for a raise should have been easy, thought Chris Waller.

Waller, 38, works for a family company that fits expensive products into safe packaging, such as computer chips into tailored foam cases. He earned $14 per hour to start. More than six years later, he was making only $15.70.

With costs rising, he asked a supervisor about a raise. But he was rebuffed again and again until, finally, he gave two weeks’ notice.

“I was asking for (a raise for) eight months and kept getting the runaround,” he said. “I work hard.”

Readers Sound Off

When was the last time you received a raise?

“Every July! But I’m in a strong union that collectively bargains for its employees! No wonder the GOP hates unions!”

— Cager Clabaugh, 43

Vancouver, longshoreman

“Yearly, very fair plus quarterly bonuses. It truly is who you work for!”

— Kim Maddaluna Cole, 53

Vancouver, freight forwarder

“In the about three years I worked for a law firm I only got one raise, from $12 to $13, and stayed at that rate for two years. For sales, client management and legal assistance to superiors I’m glad to realize it was quite an underpay.”

— Shane Henry Kwiatkowski, 29,

Vancouver, unemployed

“Went five years without a raise before I left my last job in 2011. It was understandable though as they were struggling at the time.”

— Barbara Gordon, 53

Vancouver, retired

“2010. Then due to my employer moving out of the area, I received a 23 percent pay cut for the same work at the new company.”

— Pam Shellenberger, 62

Vancouver, retired

“Three years.”

— J.C. Davis, 50

Vancouver, hospital administrator

“Two years ago and there will not be one this year due to ‘minimum wage increase and cost of doing business has gone up.’ Never mind they’re saving a ton on taxes. It is all an excuse!”

— Karen Brawner, 52

Vancouver, store manager

“December 2017, just in time for my rent to go up in February 2018, which pretty much negated my raise.”

Kim Gentry Chamberlain, 44

Vancouver, pharmacy technician

“When I stopped working for someone else, and started working for myself.”

Anthony Lee, 28

Vancouver, entrepreneur

Despite a growing demand for workers, stagnant wages have been a common plight for people like Waller who earn less than $48,000, the Clark County median annual wage. Incomes rose only 6 percent on average for those workers in the past decade, according to state data.

By contrast, people whose income ranks in the top 20th percentile saw their paychecks grow 14 percent. The top 5 percent of local earners averaged raises of 20 percent.

It’s a global trend that is largely out of the hands of local governments and businesses. But many in Clark County still risk being left out of economic growth.

Meanwhile, Waller’s seen some growth at home: his four kids, his debt and his rent. He and his wife, Jennifer, are happy, in spite of lingering fears about how quickly things could change in the event of a medical emergency. They wonder how they might ever dig themselves out.

“We’re always walking a tightrope,” Waller said.

‘The way stuff is’

With combined earnings of about $42,000 annually, the Wallers have watched expenses increasingly constrict the budget for the family of six.

Chris Waller’s latest paycheck arrived March 22, but he said it once again fell short of satisfying the car payments, student debts, medical expenses and emergency loans.

He can’t be immediately worried about the mounting bills, though. After getting home at 1:30 a.m., he wakes up five hours later to help kids get to school with his wife, who then leaves for work. He then cares for their youngest, 3-year-old Emily.

“Moving really hurt us,” he said. “We had to move, take on a loan and pawn some stuff off. My credit score is too low.”

The Wallers pay $1,500 a month for a cramped duplex in Battle Ground. It is their fourth home in seven years, a perennial migration they hope to end. But the lease expires in a couple of months. Will the new, higher rent force them to move again?

According to the real estate website ApartmentList, rents have risen 30 percent here since January 2014. That includes units ranging from studios to three-bedroom apartments.

Buying a house isn’t a realistic option. In Clark County, median sale prices for homes rose from $208,000 to $326,500 from 2010 to 2017, according to the Regional Multiple Listing Service. “We want to buy a home, but our debt-to-income ratio is too high,” Waller said.

“The housing costs and costs of living have skyrocketed in the last few years,” Jennifer Waller said. “Five or six years ago, things were more affordable. We weren’t going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t have children because I can’t afford them.’ ”

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The Wallers’ grocery purchases are aided by food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children government nutrition program, and the family is getting good at budgetary limbo.

Shopping lists are crafted once a month when the food stamps arrive. They favor meats that can be stored in they freezer bought with a tax refund, and the pantry is padded with cans from the food bank.

The clan recently hauled itself over to Walmart to buy some fresh vegetables for a taco dinner. It was a family field trip.

Oldest kids Kayla and Chloe helped pick things off the shelf so that their mom could check them before landing in the cart. After 13 years on government aid, Jennifer Waller has nearly memorized what foods are eligible. The kids politely asked the bakery clerk for free samples, then flocked to the fish counter to ogle the dead stares of the tilapia. They ran into an in-store Easter Bunny and got an impromptu family photo.

That day also coincided with a little extra spending money for Chris Waller. A six-month stockpile of aluminum cans — with donations from co-workers — netted $113. They bought garbage bags and tea, but the rest goes toward bills, he said.

“Really, the way stuff is, making what I’m making would have been fine 10 years ago,” he said. “But things have changed.”

Donut hole

These are realities faced by many in Clark County, as well as many people across the country and in other developed parts of the world.

Regional labor economist Scott Bailey said a lot of it can be traced to a shift in the jobs that are available.

“There are more of these white-collar, administrative, more-educated jobs that are giving good, growing wages,” he said. “There are also more retail, service, hospitality and general-labor (jobs) that are lower wage that haven’t grown nearly as much.”

What’s missing? Jobs for lower-skilled people that pay family wages, he said.

Bailey cautioned about what conclusions can be drawn from the state data, however, because there are many factors it cannot account for. For example, it does not look at what individuals earn, but rather what businesses report paying.

Likewise, income can be derived elsewhere than wages, whether it’s from recycling aluminum cans or owning assets such as stocks and real estate. When lower wages rise more slowly, acquiring these assets can become more difficult.

Besides being a difficult cycle to break, Bailey said that it can also be bad business for employers and put added pressure on the economy.

“If you’re lower income, you’ve got a ton of challenges, and that impacts your productivity,” he said. “Period.”

Retraining opportunities

Much of the Waller family’s hopes for an easier life rests with a possible career change for Jennifer Waller.

With a college degree in human and social services, the 32-year-old expects to quit her job as a part-time lunch lady this summer to pursue a career in that field. At the cafeteria, her pay has risen only when the minimum wage increased.

Although Jennifer Waller worries about how the move could make things tougher in the short term, she said she’s tired of living paycheck to paycheck.

“I’m there,” she said. “My boss is well aware I’m not coming back next school year. I’ve quit my job. I’m there.”

Now may be as good a time as any for that move. The unemployment rate spent half of 2017 at less than 5 percent, indicating that there is a strong demand for workers and plenty of job openings.

“I’m looking for something now where I’m going to be in (social and human services) because somebody has to do it,” she said. “Somebody has to be the one who can make more money.”

Her husband could potentially switch careers, too. There are higher-paying labor jobs in construction, for example, but he said bum knees and a bad elbow keep him from more strenuous labor. He thinks he could work in an office, but he knows he has nothing on his r?sum? to prove that.

“An employer is not going to want to hire me and pay me $20 to start when they can hire someone younger and pay them less,” he said.

There are programs, however, that aim to address these problems. Clark College and WorkSource Southwest Washington both offer programs.

One such program offered by WorkSource helps companies pay the wages for “underskilled” workers while training them for better jobs. The key, however, is getting people to know that these programs exist, said Darcy Hoffman, business solutions manager.

The company trains for manufacturing, construction, health care and transportation sectors. These are jobs that still pay family wages and have shown growth.

“We do try really hard to educate people where the jobs are at,” Hoffman said. Some people might not like those choices, and she added that, “It’s still up to you to decide your destiny.”

Julia Maglione, communications director for the organization, said some businesses also tend to try hire from outside for mid-level jobs when they could instead promote and train the lower-skilled employees.

“That way we don’t have lower-level employees who are so frustrated that they leave to get better wages,” she said.

That is what Chris Waller almost did. He had lined up a trucking job before he put in his two weeks’ notice. It was only then that he said his bosses asked him what it would take to stay, and he negotiated a raise to $18 per hour with raises in the future.

Does he think that raise will make his family financially secure?

“It’s hard to say,” he said.

Columbian staff writer