Nashville Workers Ask: Why Are Pay And Benefits Lacking In City’s Hiring Boom? | Nashville Public Radio

Nashville Workers Ask: Why Are Pay And Benefits Lacking In City’s Hiring Boom?

Aug 29, 2016

More Nashvillians are finding work, and the unemployment rate is now below 4 percent. Yet at the same time nearly one of every five residents — 19.9 percent — lives in poverty.

These two figures have led a broad coalition of activists to ask: Where are the good jobs?

That was the title for an event hosted Sunday by Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, or NOAH, to provide a primer on the city’s changing job market and to make requests of Metro officials.

“It seems we have a lot of jobs, but maybe those aren’t great jobs. So we’re trying to figure out what the city can do and what citizens can do,” said Jason Freeman, co-chairman of NOAH’s task force on economic opportunity and jobs.

"The question is, what do those jobs pay and do those jobs have benefits?" — Jason Freeman

One answer came from Ken Chilton, assistant professor of public administration at Tennessee State University. He told the gathering that the city’s poverty rate has moved from 13 percent to 19.9 percent since 2000. (See a deeper report on poverty here.)

“The bulk of the jobs created since 2009 have been $20 an hour and less,” he said.

Chilton focused on a major trade-off: full-time, high-paying manufacturing jobs, at $26 an hour, are less common, and part-time hospitality and food service jobs, at $14 an hour, have increased greatly. (While manufacturing work has been on the rebound since the recession, he said the county’s 80,000 manufacturing jobs is still down compared to 110,000 jobs before the downturn.)

“Not all service sector jobs are bad, but in leisure and hospitality they don’t have deep roots in terms of creating livable wages and upward mobility for families and people in poverty,” he said.

NOAH — which is made up of leaders within neighborhoods, faith groups and labor unions — wants Metro to do the following:

  • keep as many full-time city positions as possible;
  • add job creation goals and wage requirements on companies that receive government incentives; and
  • give preference toward companies that provide a “living wage” and benefits when awarding contracts.

The group focused on Metro’s role partly because the government itself employs around 10,000 workers. About 11 percent are part-time.

“Many of us live below the poverty line,” said Recco Seay, a Metro Schools employee and a coach in three sports. “One way Metro can help with this is to stop creating part-time jobs, when a full-time, full-service worker quits or retires.”

“We want full-time employment,” he said. “We need to make more than $10 an hour. If our children are so important, then value my co-workers and I.”

TSU assistant professor Ken Chilton explained Nashville's job market changes during a meeting at East Park Community Center.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN

NOAH also wants a new policy governing corporate incentives. The group suggested more monitoring of how many jobs companies receive — with minimum requirements for the wages and benefits they provide.

Those kinds of measures are being considered, said Erik Cole, director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Empowerment.

“These statistics are too tragic and too mind-boggling for us to do things the old way,” Cole said. “We’ve got to fix our systems.”

Cole said changes are also coming to job training programs.

“In order to work with these issues, we’ve got to go where people are and we’ve got to meet them where they are,” he said. “The days of sitting in a center or an office or a school and just waiting for people to come in and access a program are over. And they should be over.”