It’s the kind of statistic that gets attention in a fast-growing region like the Seattle area: On Wednesday, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that average wages and salaries in the area grew only about half as fast as the nation as a whole last year.
For the 12-month period ending in December, average wages and salaries in the area were up just 1.3% from a year earlier — less than the rate of inflation — compared with 3% for the nation, according to the BLS.
It was the fourth consecutive BLS quarterly report that has showed Seattle-area wage and salary growth falling behind the national average — and, possibly, evidence that the region’s job market might be cooling.
But Washington state labor economists aren’t sure that wages and salaries are actually declining.
Scott Bailey, a regional economist with the state Employment Security Department, says he and other state economists have been watching the BLS data closely over the last year, but haven’t seen a similar decline in either the state’s own jobs data or in other federal data related to the job market in the Seattle area.
To the contrary, state data shows that the average wage in the Seattle area — which the BLS defines as King, Snohomish, Pierce, Island, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Skagit, Snohomish and Thurston counties — was $81,564 in the third quarter of 2019, the latest period available, or 7.6% higher than the same quarter in 2018, Bailey said.
That squares with other jobs data, which shows a tight local labor market. The unemployment rate in the Seattle area for December was just 2.7%. That’s below the national average for December (3.5%) and down substantially from the rate in the Seattle area a year earlier (3.8%), according to federal data.
Likewise, the Seattle area continues to generate new jobs at a prodigious rate. During the 12 months ending September 2019, the latest period for which data is available, total jobs in King and Snohomish counties combined grew 2.8%, to 1.79 million, according to state data.
Plus, the region added lots of jobs in high-wage sectors, such as software and information services, which would tend to push up wages, Bailey said. He suggested that the BLS data “should be viewed with caution.”
Matthew Gardner, chief economist at Windermere Real Estate, agrees.
The BLS numbers “just don’t jibe” with the region’s tight labor market, he said, or with what he is hearing from local employers, many of which have spent the last several months facing workers who are saying “give me a pay raise or I’m going somewhere else.”