Pittsburgh Wage Study

Wage Study cover photo

From Barely Making It to…? Effects of Raising Wages among Hospital Workers

Attention to the struggles of low-wage workers has increased over the last decade. From movements to raise the minimum wage, to the Fight for $15 campaign spreading throughout the country, to a focus on local institutions and employers here in Pittsburgh, the circumstances and challenges of low-wage workers are increasingly entering public debate. Conventional wisdom was that low-wage workers were primarily teenagers, workers without families to support, or workers without high school or college education or experience.  However, the increased attention to these workers has demonstrated these ideas are wrong. Research has found that 79% of low-wage workers have a high school diploma and 46% have attended at least some college (Mishel, 2014). Further, almost 90% of low-wage workers are 20 years or older and more than one third are 40 and older (Essrow & Cooper, 2013). In addition, the majority of low-wage workers are women, many of whom have children (Oxfam and the Economic Policy Institute, 2016).

In addition to bringing a more accurate understanding of who low-wage workers are, the increased attention to them has better elucidated their struggles. Many face multiple hardships, from food insecurity to housing instability to having utilities cut off. Low-wage workers often report living from paycheck-to-paycheck and needing to use public benefits or “charity”, juggling bills, and being one-unforeseen-expense away from crisis. They also report being unable to afford insurance or health care and putting-off needed health care even when facing a serious health issue. Low-wage workers with children report not being able to provide their children with food and other necessities.

Understanding the struggles of low-wage workers is important because many low-wage workers are supporting themselves and their families with extremely limited resources while facing substantial hardship in doing so. It is also important because a large portion of the U.S. workforce earns low wages. According to a recent report from Oxfam and the Economic Policy Institute (2016), 41.7 million American workers earn less than $12 per hour and 58.3 million earn less than $15 per hour. This means that just under half of the U.S. workforce earns less than $15 per hour, despite substantial evidence that this is not enough to meet the needs of most workers and their families.    

Attempts to increase the minimum wage and other movements such as the Fight for $15 campaign are important efforts that have earned victories in a variety of locales, including in Pittsburgh. As these efforts continue, questions about whether and how wage increases for low-wage workers improve the well-being of these workers and their families remain to be answered. Most studies of minimum wage increases focus broadly on effects on employment, inflation, and employers, while relatively little research has examined the effects in the lives of workers and their families. This is a significant gap. If research demonstrates that workers and their families are better off, this can be used to support efforts to raise wages for other workers. If research suggests there are areas in which workers and their families are not better off, efforts can be made to consider other needed changes. In sum, such research will help advocates, policy makers, and employers ensure that Pittsburgh is a livable city for all of its citizens.


The Pittsburgh Wage Study is funded by the University of Pittsburgh, Office of the Provost, Provost's Collaborative Research Grants, & The Heinz Endowments.

Study Overview

The Pittsburgh Wage Study has several components. The first involves in-depth semi-structured interviews with a sample of approximately three dozen hospital workers over time. The baseline interviews assess the daily realities of making ends meet on low wages. It explores the choices workers make about balancing their budgets, where they are able to live, what public and private assistance they require, how they are able to participate in the lives of children and their families, and how they feel about their jobs. These hospital workers are being followed over time in order to better understand whether and how wage increases change these realities. Recruitment for the Pittsburgh Wage Study has occurred through our attendance at meetings of workers, outreach by workers to their colleagues, and outreach through SEIU, the sample is representative through this targeted outreach. The goal of this component is to gain a detailed, in-depth of understanding of how these workers make ends meet and how wage increases affect their lives in a variety of areas.

The second component of this study is a structured survey of hospital workers and security guards. This component establishes a baseline documenting the hardships experienced by workers, receipt of public and private assistance, housing situations, community and family involvement and experiences, employment and income, and health and mental health prior to the wage increases. We follow these workers as their wages increase to assess whether and how things change. The Pittsburgh Wage Study utilizes innovative strategies to reach-out to workers (approximately 1,100) via mailings, emails, Facebook, and group lunches. This strategy is also cost effective because it offers the possibility of involving a large number of workers without face-to-face interviews. Incentives are offered to workers to keep them engaged in the study with this component thus providing generalizable information on the experiences of the population of workers.         

These two components complement one another by providing a broad understanding of the struggles of low-wage workers and the effects of wage increases on their well-being, along with an in-depth understanding of the realities of their lives and how they balance the challenges of low-wage work with family and community participation.

Research Team

Jeffrey Shook, Associate Professor, School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh

Ray Engel, Associate Professor, School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh

Sara Goodkind, Associate Professor, School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh

Helen Petracchi, Associate Professor, School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh

Sandra Wexler, Consultant

Sera Linardi, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Kess Ballentine, Doctoral Student, School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh

Jihee Woo, Doctoral Student, School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh

Logan Bialik, Policy Student, GSPIA, University of Pittsburgh


Research Questions

  1. What hardships do workers experience under the current wage structure, as well as under the improved wage structure? How does a wage increase address some of these hardships?
  2. How does a wage increase impact worker participation in public assistance programs (e.g., SNAP, LIHEAP, EITC, Child Tax Credit, Section 8, Childcare, and Medicaid) and community nonprofit programs (e.g., food banks, free clothes closets, or toy giveaways)?
  3. How does a wage increase impact worker participation in employer benefits (e.g., health, retirement, education)?
  4. How do wage increases affect workers’ physical and mental health?
  5. How does a wage increase impact workers’ ability to increase personal savings?
  6. How does a wage increase impact workers’ ability to participate in the lives of their families and communities? How does a wage increase affect children’s and families’ well-being?
  7. How does a wage increase impact workers’ feelings about and commitment to their jobs?

Publications/Working Briefs

Research Briefs

Video Links



Media Coverage


Pittsburgh Wage Review Committee


Wage Studies


Pittsburgh Wage Study General Contact Information

Mia Alcorn

Project Coordinator, Pittsburgh Wage Study

University of Pittsburgh

School of Social Work

2117 Cathedral of Learning

Pittsburgh, PA 15217


TEL: 412.510.9601