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Janesville entrepreneur Ron Enis gives a sample of handmade, flavored popcorn to Rennie Harper, center; Khyla Cartwright, left; and Katrina Howard, right, at his RonMar Tasty Popcorn shop at Uptown Janesville. Enis owns and operates RonMar in addition to working another job at a local manufacturer. Enis said he believes education and the willingness to continue to learn and work hard are the keys to combating a wage gap that minority workers face.

JANESVILLE

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.”

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