Want to make decent pay? Don't work in northern valley

The wage gap is growing between what Northern San Joaquin Valley employers pay and what's paid by employers statewide and nationally.

Stanislaus County employers, for instance, paid workers 35.5 percent less than the California average and 18.5 percent less than the national average in 2007.

New Bureau of Economic Analysis wage statistics show how valley businesses for decades have paid employees less, but the disparity has worsened during this recession.

Before the valley's economy began tanking in 2006, Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin county wages were slowly narrowing the wage gap.

During the so-called "dot-com bust" in 2001 and 2002, for instance, valley wage increases soared compared with those offered by employers elsewhere in the state and nation.

Valley wages also outpaced state and national averages during this region's 2003-2005 building boom.

But those good years were too few and the gains were too little to eliminate long-term pay inequalities. Now that the valley's economy has crumbled, BEA statistics show that valley employers are providing relatively meager pay increases.

Example: Stanislaus employers paid workers an average of $37,034 last year, compared with California's average of $50,182. Wages were even worse in Merced County, $32,712, and not much better in San Joaquin, $38,407.

Bay Area pay far higher

It's obvious why so many valley folks commute over the Coast Range for work when valley wages are compared with what Bay Area employers paid on average in 2007: Alameda County, $58,014; Contra Costa County, $55,293; San Mateo County, $71,517; San Francisco County, $75,102; and Santa Clara County, $82,003.

And it seems the rich just keep getting richer. In Santa Clara, for example, wages rose more than 7 percent last year, which was more than double Stanislaus' 3.4 percent wage gain.

But not all valley workers suffered equally: Those employed by local government agencies did much better than those working for private companies.

When all types of compensation are considered, including retirement plan contributions and fringe benefits, Stanislaus' local governments boosted pay packages nearly 5.9 percent last year. Stanislaus' private employers raised compensation less than 3.2 percent.

The contrast was more drastic in Merced, where local government agencies hiked compensation 8 percent, compared with private company increases of less than 2.5 percent.

Thousands of employee compensation statistics are posted on the BEA's Web site, www.bea.gov. Besides average wage statistics, the bureau tracks compensation and job numbers for 114 industries and 3,111 counties.

Stanislaus employers, for example, had 183,552 full-time and part-time workers in 2007 who were paid nearly $6.8 billion in wages and $1.65 billion worth of fringe benefits.

Health care is Stanislaus' fastest growing sector. Health care employer payrolls swelled nearly 13 percent in 2007.

Meanwhile, payrolls for retail trade, construction and real estate companies declined, reflecting the collapse of the housing market.