Homebound traffic is just beginning to fill downtown Hartford streets as a crowd of workers gathers on the sidewalk near the Old State House. Several dozen strong, bearing flags and placards, they form a line and begin the familiar union chants.
Most of the workers at this rally are in food service - cooks, cashiers, servers, dishwashers employed in the cafeterias of downtown businesses or at nearby colleges. They are a cross section of the city and surrounding towns: young and old, male and female, Hispanic, black and white.
And they are part of the fastest-growing employment group in the state, what the U.S. Census Bureau calls the service occupations. They account for nearly half the total growth in the state workforce from 2000 through 2006, according to new census figures.
The change in the nature of the workforce is nothing new. Across the country, employment in service occupations has grown rapidly for years as the proportion of workers in other areas, particularly manufacturing, stagnated or declined.
But the latest census data indicate the change is happening more rapidly here than in other parts of the country. Connecticut ranks in the upper third of states in workforce growth attributed to service occupations, the lowest-paying job category, and near the bottom in growth attributed to professional and managerial occupations, the highest-paying category.
Put another way, for every two workers added to the ranks of professional and managerial employees since 2000, three entered service occupations.
The pace of change has some economists concerned that Connecticut ultimately could lose its cherished position in the top ranks for per capita income.
"We have a disproportionate job creation in lower-income, lower-skill areas," said Fred Carstensen, professor of economics at the University of Connecticut and director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis. "You have to have those jobs - that's part of economic development. You're going to have a range of incomes and skills. But we're getting this corrosive shift away from the higher-income positions. It's not good."
"We're going to see other states do better than we are," West Hartford economist Ron Van Winkle said. "We're going to see other states begin to catch us in median income."
The men and women marching in a long, thin loop on the Central Row sidewalk in Hartford have an answer for that concern.
"I know for a fact I should get paid a lot more money than I get paid right now," worker Jose Sanchez said.
Analogy To 1910s, '20s
Connecticut remains among the most white collar of states, with 39 percent of workers over 16 saying they are employed in management or professional jobs, according to the Census Bureau's 2006 American Community Survey, a large-scale national sampling operation. Another 15 percent said they held office jobs.
But while those categories accounted for more than half of all workers in 2000, they accounted for just 28 percent of the people added to the workforce since then.
Service workers represented just over 14 percent of all workers in 2000 but more than 47 percent of the growth in the workforce since then. They include nurses aides and home health aides; security guards; food service workers; building and grounds workers; day-care attendants; tourism and hospitality employees; and personal appearance workers.
The category also includes relatively well-paying police and firefighting jobs, most of which are unionized and provide benefits, but they account for no more than a tenth of the total. Overall, workers in the service occupations have lower median earnings than any other group.
The median earnings of all service-occupation workers in Connecticut rank among the highest in the country at $20,158, but that is less then 55 percent of the statewide median income, according to the census figures, and a little more than a third of the earnings of management and professional workers.
In addition to being the lowest-paid occupational group, service workers are more likely to be minorities, more likely to be women and far less likely to have year-round, full-time jobs, according to the survey.
Steve Matthews, the Connecticut director of Unite Here, a union that represents workers in food service and other service occupations, likens them to an earlier group of laborers.
"The analogy I draw is to the 1910s and '20s, when there was this upsurge in manufacturing," he said. "Those jobs were dirty, difficult jobs, long hours, poor pay and no benefits.
"Then, beginning in the 1930s, workers started to organize," he said. "We now look back at the late '40s, '50s and '60s as this golden era of working-class life. That was standing on the shoulders of serious organizing decades before that."
There's another similarity: Like the new factory workers of a century ago, many of today's service workers are immigrants. And now, as then, immigrants often draw suspicion and antipathy.
Although the American Community Survey figures don't break down the service occupation workers by place of birth, for years much of the growth in Connecticut's working age population has come from immigration. And, Matthews said, many of the newcomers end up in the kind of jobs his union targets.
"Our members are from all over the world. They're hardworking and come to the United States to have a better life," he said. "They face all kinds of challenges, and our union faces all kinds of challenges, in terms of the outright hostility that some sectors of our society have for immigrants."
Source Of Concern
For all they may lack in terms of pay and benefits, service jobs have one advantage over the manufacturing jobs they seem to be replacing: They aren't likely to be moved out of state or overseas.
"Health care, protective services, restaurants aren't affected much by this national competition, or world competition, to find the lowest price," Van Winkle said. "They compete against each other."
And in some ways, he said, the rapid growth of service employment can be seen as a sign that Connecticut remains economically healthy, at least for now: The higher your income, the more likely you are to go out to restaurants, for example, or hire gardeners or housekeepers.
But jobs in those areas tend to be cyclical, UConn's Carstensen noted, and can be hit hard if the economy falters. That's particularly true in areas such as tourism, which has spurred growth in service employment from the casinos in New London County to the new convention center in Hartford.
The expansion of low-paying jobs and stagnation in higher-paid occupations is a sign that the state needs work on bringing higher-paying jobs back to the state, Carstensen said.
"It's a source of real concern for the kind of state that we are," he said. "It just underlines how extraordinarily important it is to have a coherent economic development strategy and for the state to make strategic investments."
But Jacqueline Cotto and Jose Sanchez don't want jobs in different industries. They want the jobs they have, in food service, to pay better.
That's the point of the downtown demonstration: to push for organization of corporate cafeteria workers employed by Aramark, the 240,000-employee international food service giant. The downtown workers are joined by unionized employees of Aramark and other food-service companies at nearby colleges.
Earl Baskerville, president of Unite Here, Local 217, at the University of Hartford, said he's paid about $19 an hour plus benefits after 10 years with Aramark. Cotto, who works for Aramark at United Healthcare's cafeteria, said she makes $11.64 an hour, without benefits.
"I've been there eight years - that was my first food service job. Basically I do every job in that kitchen," she said. "We serve like 2,000 customers a day, so it's a busy place."
Cotto, who is 29, married and has three children, said she thinks about going back to school so she can get a different job, but she would rather stay where she is.
"I like the job. It's a good job. I'm a hands-on person, I like to multi-task," she said. "I like my hours. I'm home when my kids come home - that gives me all day with them."
That's only possible, though, because her husband has a good job, with benefits, at the Hartford Club.
"If I wasn't married and my husband didn't have such a good job, I would be working two jobs to make ends meet because after taxes what you bring home isn't a lot."
Sanchez, 47, already works two jobs: 40 hours a week for Aramark at Travelers and 30 hours in a union job for the food service company Chartwell's at Trinity College. He and his wife, who also works at Trinity, are raising seven children and depend on the benefits they get from Chartwell's.
"I like what I do," he said. But he'd like to do a bit less of it.
"It'd be nice for me to have one job making that kind of money" that he now gets from two, Sanchez said. "That's the way it should be, follow me? Now you can spend time with the kids. Me working back-to-back jobs, by the time I go home, the kids are asleep."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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