Workers are earning more, but inflation means they can afford way less

Some workers secured their largest raises in years in 2021 as companies competed to retain employees amid record-high job openings. But while the number on workers’ paychecks might be higher, it’s not going as far as they might have hoped, thanks to staggeringly high inflation in the U.S.

February continued the months-long streak of record-setting inflation: U.S. consumer prices were up 7.9% compared to a year ago, the highest increase since the early 1980s, according to the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gas, food, and rent prices drove the increase. And with gas prices likely to keep rising because of the war in Ukraine, inflation is expected to get even worse.

“Headline inflation dodged the 8% bullet in February, but only by a tenth, and it will break that barrier quite comfortably in March,” Ian Shepherdson, economist at Pantheon Economics, wrote in a research note. He expects inflation to reach a peak between 8.2% to 8.4% next month.

All of this is bad news for the average American—even many of those who were able to move to a better-paying job in the past year amid the so-called Great Resignation. The national average raise was 4.5% in 2021, the biggest hike in years but nowhere near enough to keep pace with rising prices. In 2021, workers would have had to receive at least a 6% pay hike to keep up with inflation in real terms. Workers might be earning more, but they can afford less.

“Some employees report that inflation adds insult to injury,” says Daniel Zhao, senior economist at employee review site Glassdoor. And some “employees feel like they deserve larger raises than usual this year as they filled in for coworkers who resigned during the Great Resignation.”

The affordability pressures are especially painful for lower-income Americans, says Melissa Bearden, head of consumer intelligence at Capital One: 10% of those earning less than $25,000 per year received a non-performance-based raise or bonus in the past three months, compared to 30% of those earning at least $100,000, according to a new analysis from the Capital One Insights Center that surveyed a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults across income groups about their finances. Higher earners are three times as likely as lower earners to say that their wages have kept up with the cost of living.

But all Americans are feeling the sting. Capital One’s report found that 26% of consumers were unable to pay at least one bill in January, and 62% of respondents have reduced their discretionary spending because of inflation.

“Americans of all income levels are feeling the impact of inflation but finding comparable wage growth elusive,” says Bearden.

That said, high inflation gives employees ammunition to ask for bigger raises this year, or ask for more in the salary negotiation process. A December report from the Conference Board predicts businesses will increase pay by almost 4% in 2022. And if inflation does slow down in the coming months, as Shepherdson and other economists anticipate, then workers could finally see real wage gains and an increase in purchasing power.

If a raise at an employee’s current job isn’t in the cards, Zhao says the best approach is to switch companies, particularly in such a hot market.

“Having outside options in hand can also help employees negotiate with their current employers by giving them better information about their market pay and more leverage,” he says. “Employers would be wise to listen to their employees and meet their salary needs in order to retain talent.”

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