Genia Stevens, the operator of a local business incubator for Black entrepreneurs, isn’t surprised that one recent national study ranks Janesville and Beloit near the bottom of the stack of small metro areas when it comes to wages for minority workers.
Stevens, who is Black, started her own consulting business years ago to help augment her pay at a job she worked in Rockford, Illinois. Years later, after Stevens no longer worked at the Rockford job, she learned from former colleagues that she had been paid far less than others in the office.
“Back then, I just thought the economy was bad or maybe I hadn’t really asked for enough money,” she said. “But later, I learned something I hadn’t realized at the time. It was that the white person next to me who had the same education, the same experience, even the same job, was making $10,000 more than I was making,” Stevens said.
Stevens’ experience was more than a decade ago. Since then, not much has changed, according to a new study.
Even as joblessness edges back to a historic low and the economy shows glimmerings of improvement this spring, the study by national analyst Self Financial shows that the Janesville area continues to see one of the biggest wage gaps for minority workers in the U.S.
The study, released last month, shows the Janesville-Beloit metro area near the bottom of the stack—89th of 112 small cities in the U.S.—for average pay for minority workers. That ranking was the lowest among Wisconsin small metros.
Self used U.S. Census data that showed full-time, minority workers in Janesville and Beloit on average earn about $30,000 a year—about $15,000 less than the median annual pay for all workers in Rock County.
Janesville-Beloit ranked 211th out of all 241 U.S. metros for minority pay, the study found. The average annual wage for a minority worker here is about $10,000 below the national average.
The study is based on U.S. Census data from 2019. And while it doesn’t examine differences of pay based on occupation type, the study factors in local cost of living as well as the size of the minority population in each metro.
Local wage data supplied to The Gazette from the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board doesn’t show variations in pay based on race, but it does show Black and Hispanic workers make up a greater proportion of the workforce in lower-paying job types in certain industries in Rock County, including food packaging and semi-skilled health care service jobs.
Self’s study explains that Black and Hispanic workers are less likely to hold advanced educational degrees, which some analysts believe can temper earning potential.
Stevens, who runs the Beloit-based Black business incubator Rock County Jumpstart, said many of those she has helped to launch their own small businesses did so at least in part because they were unsatisfied with their prospects for wage growth while working in various local industries.
Stevens, who holds a master's degree in business, said Black workers in Rock County face headwinds to earning that start in grade school.
Stevens pointed out that statewide, white students are five times more likely than Black students to be proficient in math. And she said only about 70% of local Black students graduate high school compared to a roughly 95% graduation rate for white students.
Stevens said that hurdle isn’t new, but it continues to be a reason why the minority pay gap exists.
Manufacturing, food service and warehousing work are two sectors that employ thousands in the local economy, including a sizable proportion of Black and Hispanic workers. Stevens said some hiring managers and staffing agencies will channel people into manufacturing jobs based in large part on math testing scores.
For a demographic that tends to be less proficient in math, the ceiling for upward mobility tends to be set lower and stay lower, Stevens said.
“They’re getting lower-paying jobs,” Stevens said. “And there’s less upward mobility because of those jobs.”
By comparison, another Wisconsin metro, La Crosse-Onalaska, has a much smaller minority pay gap compared to Janesville-Beloit and a higher average pay for minority workers. That’s even though La Crosse is similar to Janesville-Beloit in overall population, racial demographics and cost of living. Self’s study ranks La Crosse in the top 20 for all U.S. small cities for minority pay.
The study shows that in La Crosse, a city with multiple major health care facilities and a state university, the average minority worker earns about $41,000 a year—just $1,000 less per year than the median pay for all workers in La Crosse.
Ron Enis is a Black entrepreneur who runs RonMar Tasty Popcorn, a handmade flavored popcorn store in Uptown Janesville.
Enis, a Janesville resident, said he runs his own business because he found a local niche not being served elsewhere. Enis also works for a local manufacturer, though he considers his popcorn business a full-time job.
Enis said in the past, he has left jobs that didn’t pay enough, but he said he never felt like he was underpaid because he is Black.
Enis thinks that some local industries will continue to face wage pressure, particularly in an expanding economy. He said he thinks many companies who want to keep employees will do so through making their pay “competitive,” regardless of the racial makeup of their workforce.
Like Stevens, Enis said he thinks education is vital, but he said anyone can learn a job and advance within it if they work hard to keep learning.
“You can help people excel,” Enis said. “But it depends on the individual, too. Not everybody is trying to thrive. Some are OK to just survive.”
The city of parks will never be called the city of Kwik Trips, but some might find the designation fitting.
The gas station/convenience store chain got approval from the Janesville Plan Commission on Monday night for yet another store, this one on Wright Road across from Mercyhealth East.
Kwik Trip plans to build at 1030 N. Wright Road, opening probably in August 2023, said Dax Connely, the chain’s real estate manager.
The approval for a conditional-use permit to build the store and gas pumps came on a 5-1 vote, which does not need city council approval.
Voting against was Paul Williams, who said the store would be too close to homes.
“I don’t believe this is an area where we want to put a gas station in for the next 40 to 50 years,” Williams said.
Commissioner Barry Badertscher agreed with Williams, saying the property seller had land available nearby on Milwaukee Street, where gas stations are allowed.
Badertscher, however, voted “yes” when the time came, saying “Kwik Trip has been a great partner for the city, and I’m sure they will do great job.”
Kwik Trip plans to offer a liquor store and one-lane car wash at the site, as it has done with some of its other projects. The store would operate 24 hours a day.
A study by Kwik Trip found the nearest residence is about 650 feet away, where the store’s noise would be about 40 decibels, similar to that of a bird call, City Planner Jon Wolfrath said.
John Bieberitz of Traffic Analysis & Design, who did a traffic study for the Wright Road store, said traffic levels will be well within state transportation and city standards.
The study assumed a 52,000-square-foot office building would be built to the south of the convenience store, Bieberitz said.
Connely said Kwik Trip worked hard to satisfy city planners on the Wright Road project and that the store is one more step in showing Janesville that Kwik Trip wants to be in Janesville.
“We love Janesville,” Connely said. “We’ve been working hard on our Stop-N-Go stores. It certainly has been shown in the community that the Stop-N-Go stores had to be cleaned up.”
Connely said he hoped the new store would be “a catalyst for this undeveloped area on North Wright, and we hope to bring more development with us by being here.”
The commission also sent a related matter to the city council with a favorable recommendation to allow a portion of Wright Road to be added to the ordinance that allows gas stations with conditional-use permits.
Planning staff recommended allowing gas stations between the Wright Road intersections of Stuart Street south of the Milwaukee Street intersection and La Mancha Drive north of the intersection.
Commissioner Steve Knox moved to allow gas stations between Stuart Street and Milwaukee Street only. He noted Wright Road becomes a boulevard north of Milwaukee Street, turning for vehicles could be a problem, and open lots in that segment border residential back yards.
The commission also agreed to remove portions of streets in the downtown business district and near Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center from those where gas stations could be allowed. The street segments are on north and south Franklin Street and Jackson streets, Mineral Point Drive, and north River, Terrace and Washington streets.
The gas-station siting ordinance had not been updated since 1981.