Living wage mandates revisited

By Eric Crampton 03/09/2013 4

Two candidates for the Labour Party leadership have promised that they will require the payment of “living wages” for all government employees and for all government contractors. Matthew Hooton asked about the likely effects.

Were the government promising an $18.40 minimum wage across the board, things would be rather worse. The median hourly wage in the 2012 NZ Income Survey was $20.86. A minimum wage that’s 88% of the median wage would be rather, well, breathtaking. Recall the median wage is the one where half of all wage earners earn more and half earn less. Workers vary in ability; a minimum wage at 88% of the median would disemploy anyone who cannot produce value equal to just a bit less than the median worker. This would obviously be very bad. Recall that unemployment weighs far more heavily in disutility than do wages. Chris Dillow made the case a few months ago. Those who want to improve the lot of the working poor do far better by pushing for wage subsidy schemes like Working For Families [New Zealand’s EITC] than by making it too expensive to hire lower productivity workers.
The proposal here isn’t for an $18.40 minimum wage but rather for a living wage mandate for government workers. The effects then are more minor. Imagine that we have rent control on a bunch of apartments but no rent control on new buildings. We’d then expect excess demand for the rent-controlled flats, but a clearing market elsewhere. Similarly, a living wage mandate in the government sector shouldn’t have huge equilibrium unemployment effects. Lots of people queue for jobs in the high-paying sector, but they take lower-paying jobs in the private sector.
The main effect will be an increase in the cost of providing some government services. At the margin, this should mean that we have a few fewer things done by government, albeit within the context of an expansion in the size of government under a future Labour government. There would also then need to be an increase in taxes to fund it, or reduced spending in other areas to compensate, or higher deficits. I suspect Labour would bridge the gap via tax.
There will be some transitional unemployment as marginal jobs undertaken by government get shifted away from the government sector. If some of these workers were earning substantial rents in the government sector and are not employable above the legal minimum wage in the private sector, there could be some increased longer-term unemployment from that. But that shouldn’t be any substantial part of the market. There will also be rather a few transitional costs where bureaus start renting fully serviced buildings with gardening and cleaning provided as part of the rent rather than either hiring those kinds of workers directly or through a contractor.
Another important effect: contractors will enjoy less of a cost advantage relative to government departments; we could easily read the policy as a way of trying to knock out contracted services to benefit public sector unions. See my discussion on the same issue when some city councils were talking about similar ideas. Some of my discussion of the likely effects of maximum wage gap mandates in government also apply.
Note as well that government sector workers are already overpaid relative to their private sector counterparts. While this may worsen the imbalance, it means that fewer government workers would be caught in the interval from the minimum to the proposed “living” wage than would be the case among private sector employees. The costs of a living wage mandate may be lower where imposed on the government sector than where imposed broadly. Imagine it in the limit: a $500/hour minimum wage in government. I expect that while government workers would earn a lot more, government would be a much smaller share of the economy. And think of the productivity gains in government: we’d only be choosing to use government rather than markets where we expected the social value of some government function were exceptionally high indeed.  
So while I wouldn’t expect large disemployment effects from the policy, it’s hardly a great idea. If you want to increase the wages of the working poor, you hardly should be starting with government workers, who earn more on average than those in the private sector and who typically also enjoy greater job security and flexibility. And if you want to run transfers to the working poor, generalised wage subsidies are the least distortionary way of doing it. Labour’s proposed mechanism would be likely to reduce the efficiency of government services by pushing away from contracting out, and to skew the optimal balance between government services and other goods and services by increasing public sector costs.

Update: John Key also is no fan of Labour’s proposal. He suggests additional costs where aggregate wages are bid up, or at least that’s my interpretation of his argument that companies wind up having to pay more and that consumer costs then go up. That’s possible within particular labour markets but I have a hard time seeing big aggregate effects.

Let’s think of the market for service workers in restaurants. Suppose that the lowest-skilled workers work the cashier’s station at the cafeteria in some government office. And let’s suppose that this cafeteria continues to exist rather than the venue being leased out to a private sector firm, which it would under a $18.40 living wage mandate. The highest-skilled workers work at the fancy high-end restaurants, or work more complex jobs requiring a lot of balancing of tasks.

The living wage mandate then comes in. Currently employed cafeteria workers then are earning huge rents. Suppose we then have a lot of job applications from higher-skilled restaurant workers and, as consequence, job redefinitions to make better use of the more highly skilled staff. We then have more competition for more highly skilled restaurant staff and could see some bidding up of wages within that market. But there would still be low-skilled cafeterias in the private sector. With migration into that sector from former public sector workers who had been displaced, we could see some bidding down of wages in that part of the market. I can see mechanisms where there’s bidding up of private sector wages in some markets, but I’d also expect potential bidding down where lower-tier government workers move back into the private sector. 

4 Responses to “Living wage mandates revisited”

  • What constitutes your median hourly rate? Does it include all eligible workers? The unemployed? Beneficiaries?

    If it does could you tell us what the median hourly rate is for those in full (and I mean full) employment is?

  • “The highest-skilled workers work at the fancy high-end restaurants, or work more complex jobs requiring a lot of balancing of tasks.”

    But are they paid more???

    But the point is, there are families out there who are being paid these rates now. That’s not the country i want to live in.

    And your $500 / hour example is over the top. Those getting paid that rate (in the private sector, lawyers no doubt) are being paid from the business account rather than the household budget.

  • Again, how much people want to transfer to the working poor is a bit of a preference question. There are very real tradeoffs in terms of efficiency, but people can differ over the best point on an equity-efficiency frontier. Living wage mandates are simply less efficient than wage subsidies for achieving any given level of equity.

    I thought it was pretty obvious that $500/hr being taken as a limit case to illustrate some sharp effects; a $18/hr mandate would have much much smaller effects, but they’d be in the same direction.