One of the great puzzles of this economic expansion has been the tepid increase in wages, even as the unemployment rate has declined to 3.7 percent, its lowest point since 1969.

But drill down, and there’s an even deeper issue. A surprising number of workers aren’t seeing any wage growth at all. Their pay this year is exactly the same as it was last year, right down to the dollar.

Roughly 14 percent of workers – or 1 in 7 – have seen their earnings stall over the past year, counting only those who have stayed in the same job. That’s only a slight improvement over the 16 percent rate reached in the hangover years after the Great Recession.

For comparison, the last time the United States had an unemployment rate under 4 percent – in the go-go dot-com years – the number of workers getting no raises fell below 10 percent, according to an analysis of Labor Department data from former Treasury Department economist Ernie Tedeschi.

And note that the plight of these workers with frozen wages looks even worse once you account for inflation. The cost of living goes up a little bit every year, which means that same $70,000 salary is worth less in 2018 than it was in 2017.

Over time, you’d expect to see a symmetric up-and-down pattern in the number of workers without raises, driven by a well-known phenomenon called sticky wages. It works like this: Even when the economy is bad, employers are reluctant to cut pay, for fear of lowering morale and productivity. So workers lucky enough to avoid a layoff instead find their salaries frozen in place. Then, as the economy improves, regular raises return. Except this time this unusually large number of workers is still stuck with frozen paychecks.


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