Door County’s Wages and Income – A Closer Look

In last week’s Peninsula Pulse (Jan. 30, 2015, v21i05) you read Jim Lundstrom’s story titled “Fixing a Broken System,” which reported on the formation of a public school funding reform group. The third paragraph of Jim’s story began (note that the italics are mine): “The problem with the current funding formula is two-fold for Door County. First, it’s a property-rich but income-poor county …”

Through the years of writing this column I have delved into a variety of Door County’s economic issues, but I don’t think there is any data that is less understood and recognized – to a certain degree within the county and to a larger degree outside the county – than the low-wage structure on the peninsula. And while this is something I have written about in the past, it seems useful to revisit this data, since its impact is felt well beyond the public school funding issue [NOTE that the data presented below is the most recent statistics I could find].

In the 3rd Quarter of 2013 Door County had 14,486 employed individuals earning an average weekly wage of $554 (calculated using “unrounded data”) – Bureau of Labor Statistics news release dated April 16, 2014).

The news release includes this paragraph: “When all 72 counties in Wisconsin were considered, 2 reported average weekly wages less than $500, 17 had wages from $500 to $599, 28 reported wages from $600 to $699, 17 had wages from $700 to $799, and 8 had wages of $800 or more.”
Obviously, Door County’s $554 average weekly wage falls into the bottom 19 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, but when you dig deeper you find there were only six counties that had a lower average weekly wage in the 3rd quarter of 2013: Bayfield, Burnett, Florence, Iron, Marquette, and Vilas.

Keep in mind that the $554 also represents the gross amount paid to the employee, i.e. before withholding taxes. The amount of withholding can vary of course, depending on the number of exemptions an employee claims, but if we figure a conservative withholding amount of 20 percent, then the average employee is taking home just $443.20 per week. And this translates into just $1,920.53 per month.

There’s one more proviso, though: this data was compiled for the 3rd quarter of 2013, meaning that it covered the months of July, August and September. Therefore it included the two busiest months of the year – for both employment and earnings – in Door County.

The average annual wage, across all industry divisions, in 2012 was just 70.6 percent of the Wisconsin State average – State of Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, “2013 Door County Economic and Workforce Profile”

This 8-page report includes a variety of data, but of particular interest is the “Average Annual Wage by Industry Division in 2012” table on page 6. The top line of the table shows that, across all industries, the average annual wage in Wisconsin was $41,985, while the same average annual wage in Door County was $29,642 – just 70.6 percent of the state’s average.

It would be wonderful to report that this is just a one-year aberration. The truth, however, is that – as long as I have been looking at these numbers – Door County’s average annual wage has hovered around the 70 percent of the state average annual wage. As the report says on the same page, “The all industries average annual wage … places Door County in the bottom fifth of all counties in the state…”

The report goes on to state, “ The historic explanation for this disparity has focused on the unique mix of industry subsectors in the county and the differences in the nature of the work.”

The only industry where the Door County average annual wage exceeds the Wisconsin average annual wage is “Leisure & Hospitality” – ibid.
In the same table of information we see that workers in the leisure & hospitality industry in Door County earned $16,071 in 2012 compared to the state average of $15,221, or 105.6 percent of the state average. As you have probably already surmised, however, workers in this industry are the lowest earning among the 11 industries listed in the table.
Obviously, the seasonal nature of the peninsula’s economy plays a role in the annual wages (note that terminology I quoted earlier, “…differences in the nature of the work”) but that doesn’t explain the disparity in all of the industries.

Consider these examples from the table:
• Public Administration: Wisconsin annual average is $42,198 while Door County’s is $26,462 (62.7 percent of state)
• Financial Activities: Wisconsin annual average is $58,493 while Door County’s is $36,551 (62.5 percent of state)
• Manufacturing: Wisconsin annual average is $$52,413 while Door County’s is $44,928 (85.7 percent of state)
Construction: Wisconsin annual average is $51,670 while Door County’s is $38,731 (75 percent of state)

So one takeaway from this information is that, theoretically, most workers in Door County could go elsewhere in the state and earn more money than they earn living in Door County. It’s not quite that simple, of course, but when you combine all the elements I have touched upon, you should realize that our peninsula is, indeed, an “income poor” county. And it has been this way for a very long time.