BERLIN – When the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics last week released its report on average weekly wages for Maryland, Worcester County had the dubious honor of being dead last in terms of the average take-home pay for its workforce.
According to the report outlining average weekly wages in Maryland counties during the second quarter of 2008, Worcester County workers earned an average of just $494 per week, making it the only jurisdiction in the state with an average under $500. Only Garrett County at $538 and Caroline County at $596 had an average weekly wage under $600. The statewide average of $920 compares favorably to the national average of $841, ranking Maryland seventh in the nation.
Closer to home, Wicomico County’s average weekly wage during the second quarter of 2008 was $686, while Somerset County came in at $708. As for the rest of the counties on the Eastern Shore, Talbot came in at $648, followed by Kent County ($642), Dorchester ($629), and Queen Anne’s ($604). Montgomery County had the highest average weekly wage in the state at $1,110 with St. Mary’s a close second at $1,017.
While Worcester is dead last in the state in terms of average weekly wages, the news is not entirely bad. According to Dr. Memo Diriker, director of the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network (BEACON) at Salisbury University, the extremely low figure for Worcester is somewhat of an anomaly because it includes the thousands of low-paying seasonal jobs associated with the county’s tourism industry.
“Worcester County is very interesting with regards to average wages because the statistics can be misleading,” he said. “The county does have the lowest average weekly wage in the state, but that’s a reflection of its largely tourism-based economy. If you took away the hospitality related jobs and compared Worcester County workers to workers in other counties with similar jobs, you would find they are at or above the earning levels.”
Because so many of the jobs held by foreign workers and students on summer vacation are included in the totals for Worcester, the numbers presented by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week are not necessarily a true indication of the employment picture in the county, according to Diriker.
“It’s not a major reason for concern,” he said. “Tourism brings a lot of positives and also a lot of challenges. This is one of those challenges.”
According to the most recent employment figures available from the county’s department of economic development, Worcester’s workforce numbers around 25,000, of which roughly 85 percent are employed in the private sector. Of that 85 percent, 35 percent, or around 8,000 county workers, are employed in the hospitality trade and earn an average weekly wage on paper of about $310.
“That’s the good and bad of the tourism industry,” said Diriker. “It creates a lot revenue and expands the tax base, but the wages paid for most entry level jobs don’t compare well to entry level jobs in other fields. It’s deceiving because a lot of the jobs are base plus tips and the numbers don’t necessarily reflect what they actually take home.”
County officials are well aware Worcester’s workforce is bottom-heavy in tourism-related jobs, but the news about the county’s last-place standing in the state was no less easy to swallow.
“It’s not good,” said County Commissioner Virgil Shockley. “It’s not good at all. This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. We know it’s a reflection of the seasonal nature of our economy. We’re bottom-heavy with hospitality jobs that don’t show a lot of base pay, but what those workers actually make isn’t necessarily reflected in these statistics.”
Shockley said as more and more people get laid off or furloughed from better paying jobs in the county, they might gravitate toward restaurant and hospitality jobs as they become more readily available with another summer season approaching as a means to make ends meet. In his example, an individual laid off from a $40,000 or $50,000 a year job might take a tourism-related job to keep them afloat until things improve, which will only contribute to the low average weekly wage figure in Worcester.
“That being said, we know we have to stay the course with diversifying our economy and that means creating better paying jobs,” he said. “We know that’s what will happen with broadband. It will help foster an attractive business climate here and good jobs will follow.”
County Commission President Louise Gulyas agrees Worcester needs to continually find ways to diversify its tourism and agriculture-based economy. Gulyas said encouraging economic development is an ongoing priority in the county.
“Attracting new businesses and creating better jobs has been a priority of ours in this county for years and it continues to be,” she said. “We’ll always have the tourism-based economy and that won’t change, nor do we want that to change, but we need to continue to diversify.”