2018 wages increase 4% in Kingsport-Bristol, 1.9% in Johnson City


Inflation-adjusted buying power for the four classes of workers in the Tri-Cities varied when last year’s increased were compared to 2008 averages – the year before the Great Recession hit the local economy.

In the Total Covered workers category for the Johnson City MSA buying power increase by 5.2% – an average increase of $39 a week.  A comparison of the same period for workers in the Kingsport-Bristol MSA shows they had an average 0.6% loss of buying power – $5 a week.

Private sector workers in the Johnson City MSA saw an increase of 3.8% ($28 a week) average buying power increase while Kingsport-Bristol private-sector workers had a 0.1% average increase – $1 a week.

Federal workers in the Johnson City MSA saw their inflation-adjusted power increase by an average of 4.3% ($58 a week) from their 2008 average weekly wage level. The buying power for Federal employees in the Kingsport-Bristol MSA was the same in 2018 as it was in 2008 when the most recent wage increase was adjusted.

Kingsport-Bristol state workers saw an average increase of 0.2% ($2) a week when last year’s increase was compared to the 2008 inflation-adjusted wage. A comparison for Johnson City MSA state employees could not be made because their 2008 average wage was listed as “not disclosed” by the BLS web site.

The same situation exists for a buying power comparison for Johnson City local government employees. But the data was available for local government employees in the Kingsport-Bristol MSA. Their buying power declined by an average of $36 a week (-4.8%) from the inflation-adjusted 2008 level.
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Kingsport- Bristol Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) workers saw an average 4% wage hike in 2018, according to the recently released Quarterly Census of Employment of Wages (QCEW). The same report shows Johnson City MSA workers go an average 1.9% increase. Adjust those percentages for last year’s inflation and the pay hike in the four-county Kingsport-Bristol area was 2.1% while the three-county Johnson City average dropped to 0.8%.

These increases are not adjusted for inflation.

The Tri-Cities has a reputation for low wages, and the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics’ average metro area wage estimates bear witness to and to a degree exaggerates it.  Kingsport-Bristol and Johnson City are typically at or just above the bottom of state metro areas in the monthly average private-sector earnings estimates. But a different picture emerges when you switch to QCEW reports, which trail the reporting period by about six months.

Annual average county weekly wage from the QCEW report. The averages are not adjusted for inflation.

The difference is the monthly wage estimate is a representative sample of about 689,000 worksites nationwide.  And it doesn’t include things like bonuses or overtime.  It’s the same report used for the monthly unemployment rates.  The QCEW is an aggregate of the gross wages and number of employees from about 10 million employers.

When you compare the 2018 annual QCEW average weekly average wages for private sector workers, the three governmental sectors and the total employer sectors, you see federal and state employees are at the top of the pay pyramid. That dovetails with the often-cited lament that Johnson City has a bigger economic advantage due to its government payroll.

But when you drill down to the actual number of government employees, they’re about the same for the Tri-Cities’ two metro areas. According to the May BLS report, there were 16,400 government workers in the three-county Johnson City MSA last year and 16,100 in the four-county Kingsport-Bristol MSA. That’s not an unusual annual mix. While it varies from month-to-month the BLS Employment At a Glance Report shows government is the third largest employer in the Tri-Cities. It falls just behind Education and Health Care Services and slightly above Manufacturing. It’s also a factor that helped insulate the local labor market from the full effects of last recessions.

A more detailed drill down shows the difference is Johnson City has a lot more federal employees and Kingsport-Bristol has more local employees.

Here’s how many government workers are accounted for by the May BLS report:

Johnson City MSA

Total government workers – 16,400

Federal workers – 2,900

State government – 5,800

Local government – 7,700

Kingsport-Bristol MSA

Total government workers – 16,100

Federal workers – 900

State government – 2,400

Local government – 12,800

The wage drill down also illustrates that not all government workers are the same when it comes to who gets how much.

Federal workers have the highest average wage in both metro areas. State workers are the next best paid.

Local government workers and private sector employees are fairly close matches in the Johnson City MSA, but their average lags the private sector average by $155 a week in Kingsport-Bristol. Remember these are preliminary numbers and will be revised.

When it comes to pay raises Kingsport-Bristol federal workers, and private sector workers got the larger annual increase in the region.

Later this year, the American Community Survey will offer another look at per capita and average full-time workers wages along with household and family incomes.




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