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Finally! Americans see raises in paychecks

Protesters gather in front of a Walmart store in Washington, D.C., on November 28, 2014, to demand better wages.
Muhammed Bilal Knasari | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Protesters gather in front of a Walmart store in Washington, D.C., on November 28, 2014, to demand better wages.

Don't look now, but a long-overdue rise in worker paychecks is beginning to take hold. And those raises are flowing all the way down to the bottom of the income ladder.

Wal-Mart Stores has announced that more than 1.2 million employees would get a raise in 2016, eventually bumping up its minimum wage to $10 an hour. Last summer, McDonald's raised the average worker's pay to almost $10 per hour. (Those raises were limited to company-owned outlets; franchisees operate the bulk of the chain's U.S. locations.)

Starbucks said it will raise worker pay in its U.S. stores beginning this fall, Chief Executive Howard Schultz said in a letter to employees on Monday. The company said the move will boost paychecks between 5 percent and 15 percent for roughly 150,000 workers in 7,600 U.S. cafes.

JPMorgan Chase said Tuesday that the nation's largest bank will begin handing out raises to the 18,000 workers at the bottom of the company's wage scale.

"A pay increase is the right thing to do," JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon wrote in an opinion piece for Tuesday's The New York Times.

It's also become increasingly necessary, as a tight labor market is making it harder for employers to fill new positions or hold on to the workers they have.

For decades, American workers' wages rose roughly in line with the amount of goods and services they produce. In 2001, however, for a host of reasons that economists are still debating, those wage gains began to stall — even as workers continued to produce more per hour.

With more than half a million unfilled jobs, low-paid workers and potential job candidates are in a better bargaining position than they have been in years. That's especially true for workers in industries with the highest rate of unfilled jobs. As the gap between unfilled job openings and new hires has widened, the pace of wage growth has picked up.

With the jobless rate now hovering around 5 percent — roughly half the level in the depths of the Great Recession — the U.S. labor market is close to a level economists call "full employment," when almost anyone who can work and wants a job can find one.

There's more evidence of a tight job market — where the demand for able workers is overtaking supply — in a separate monthly report from the Labor Department known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.

The report shows that the number of new job openings each month has recently begun to exceed the number of newly hired workers. It's also showing a steady rise in the number of people who leave a job because they decide to quit on their own, rather than getting laid off or leaving for other reasons.

A rise in the "quit rate" is usually seen as evidence that workers are confident enough in their job prospects to leave voluntarily. And when they do, it's often for a better job with a higher wage.

Even as hiring seems to be slowing, so is the pace of layoffs. One measure is the number of new people who sign up each week for unemployment benefits.

After falling steadily since the end of the Great Recession, those claims have fallen to the lowest level since 2000. When adjusted for the size of the labor force, initial claims are at the lowest level on record.

A separate report from the recruitment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that layoffs in June were down almost 15 percent from last June.

Workers in the greatest demand are not necessarily those in highly skilled industries, though. Job openings represent rough 5 percent of total employment for the leisure and hospitality sector. But they make up just 1.4 percent of open positions for state and local teachers and school administrators.