WASHINGTON — Wages for hourly workers in the plastics industry rose 4.6 percent in 1998, the fastest increase in at least two years, according to a survey from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Average pay for all hourly workers rose to $10.25, from $9.80 in 1997. That sharper increase than in the previous two years fueled speculation that an already-tight labor market got tighter.
Some hiring officials, however, questioned whether the market was noticeably tighter, and the survey from Washington-based SPI is not statistically valid. The figures come from 80 companies representing 103 plants across the United States that provided information in both 1997 and 1998.
In 1997 average pay for hourly workers rose 1.4 percent, and in 1996, 3.3 percent, according to earlier SPI surveys that also looked only at companies responding for at least two straight years.
``In 1998, we probably did notice more wage pressure than in prior years,'' said John Crawford, vice president of human resources at extruder and calendering firm Vinyl Plastics Inc. in Sheboygan, Wis. ``We did in fact address that.''
VPI gave an extra raise of between 2.5 percent and 5 percent at three of its four Wisconsin plants in 1998, he said. That's in addition to the regular 1998 raise of about 3 percent.
``It's the impact of the tighter labor market, and we take a pretty strong stance on being fair to employees,'' Crawford said.
There was not as much pressure on wages at the company's Delaware and Maryland plants, or at one Wisconsin facility, so extra raises were not given, he said.
SPI does not provide any analysis with the survey, which did not show much regional variation in wage increases.
Wages in the Northeast and South rose 4.2 percent, the Midwest rose 4.6 percent and the West topped out at 5.1 percent.
Cathy Wilson, human resources manager at automotive and office furniture extruder Nicholas Plastics Inc. in Allendale, Mich., said raises of 4-5 percent seem typical for last year, but she questioned the survey finding that 1998 raises were much higher than earlier years.
``I question it because the labor market has been tight here for three years at a minimum,'' she said. ``That does surprise me.''
Her company is unionized, and gave a raise of 6 percent in early 1998 and 4.2 percent in early 1999. The company has responded to the 2.9 percent unemployment rate in the Grand Rapids area by improving its benefits package and offering services such as parenting classes, she said.
Blow molder Clearplass Containers gave its hourly employees a raise of roughly 10 percent, rather than the usual 3 or 4 percent, and increased vacation time, said Don Oakleaf, controller for the Penn Yan, N.Y., firm. Clearplass is a division of Silgan Plastics Corp.
The raise, given in two installments in late 1997 and early 1998, was prompted by a glass plant opening nearby that paid higher wages, and by a joint company-employee review of area salaries that determined Clearplass' pay was ``on the low side,'' he said.
The raise ``wasn't done without a lot of teeth gnashing,'' Oakleaf said. ``It was not wanting to lose any of our people.''
Oakleaf is chairman of the SPI committee that conducts the survey.
The survey showed that salaries for first-line supervisors rose less than hourly workers, rising on average 2.3 percent in 1998.
The survey showed higher raises for both hourly and supervisory employees when all respondents — 141 companies and their 186 plants — were considered. The data from the larger sample showed that hourly wages rose 6.2 percent and supervisory wages rose 4.1 percent.
The biggest growth there came in the West, with wages jumping 10.2 percent. The slowest growth came in the Midwest, where hourly wages increased only 1.9 percent.
Almost half the companies providing data in 1998 did not in 1997, so data from all respondents does not come from the same sources and can vary greatly from year to year.