Oklahoma had the nation's third-highest rate of hourly paid workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The bureau reported that 64,000 of the state's 890,000 hourly paid workers, or 7.2 percent, earned the federal minimum wage or less. Of those, 29,000 people earned exactly the federal minimum wage, while 35,000 earned less.
The rate was up from 2011, when 56,000 of the state's 828,000 hourly paid employees, or 6.8 percent, earned the federal minimum wage or less.
Nationwide, nearly 3.6 million workers were paid at or below the minimum wage last year, accounting for 4.7 percent of all hourly paid workers, down from 5.2 percent in 2011, according to the bureau.
Minimum-wage workers tended to be young. Workers younger than 25 represented about one-fifth of all hourly paid workers but made up nearly half of those paid the federal minimum wage or less, the bureau stated.
Idaho had the largest proportion of hourly paid workers earning at or below the federal minimum at 7.7 percent, followed by Texas at 7.5 percent.
States with the lowest percentage of hourly workers earning the minimum wage or below included Alaska, Oregon, California, Montana and Washington — all at less than 2 percent.
The number of Oklahoma workers earning minimum wage or less has fluctuated since data became available in 2000 — from 25,000 in 2007 to 72,000 in 2010, according to the bureau.
David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, noted that data can be subject to a quirk in the survey or a change in the methodology, so he cautioned against putting too much emphasis on any given year.
“We have a large segment of low-wage workers, and we often forget about that population when we talk about Oklahoma's relative economic strength,” Blatt said. “So many people are working hard but are not earning enough to take care of themselves and their family month to month.”
Women comprise a greater percentage of low-wage workers. The agency reported that 58 percent of Oklahoma residents earning the federal minimum wage or less last year were female.
The report underscores the precarious situation of many families, Blatt said, noting that some people are paid the minimum wage or higher but still are falling short.
“Even though Oklahoma is doing better than most states in terms of low unemployment rates and fairly steady overall personal income growth, there's a large segment of the population that isn't getting ahead, and certainly the minimum-wage workers would be part of that,” Blatt said. “That's why we are continuing to see major demands on our safety net programs.”
The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since 2009. It was bumped up on July 24, 2007, to $5.85 after being $5.15 for nearly a decade. The wage was increased to $6.55 per hour in 2008.
“We really do need a concerted effort to help people into better-paying jobs through more education, training and workforce development,” Blatt said, “but also I think it makes the case for the minimum wage increase that is being discussed at the national level. It hasn't really kept pace.”