The Crisis in Milwaukee’s Service Industry

Today, COWS released The Crisis in Milwaukee’s Service Industry. This report highlights the challenges faced by low-wage workers in the service industry as well as the policy solutions that local leaders can take to address this crisis.

Service industry jobs—particularly in food service, janitorial work, security services, and human and health services—offer low wages, inadequate and often unpredictable hours, and benefits packages that are usually weak, if they exist at all. For Milwaukee, these jobs have been a sorry replacement for the good union manufacturing jobs that once defined opportunity in the city. This economic transformation has especially damaged Milwaukee’s Black community, resulting in extreme racial disparity.

Before the pandemic, many employers simply pursued and tolerated the high turnover generated by low-job quality because they have been committed to high flexibility and keeping wage costs low. That strategy is no longer working.

In the last two years, the underlying crisis in these jobs has been exposed and it has grown. For workers facing a global pandemic, the fact that these jobs rarely provide health insurance or paid sick leave has become an enormous liability. With job quality low and increased opportunity in other sectors, the jobs are becoming harder to fill.

“Service jobs will continue to define economic opportunity in Milwaukee,” stated Laura Dresser, Associate Director for COWS, “and without attention to the structure of those jobs, too many Milwaukee residents will continue to struggle.”

Local policy that consistently and strategically focuses on the floor under wages in the service sector can help secure decent standards of living for Milwaukee’s workers. The City of Milwaukee can focus on raising standards within the service sector by taking new approaches to:

  • contracting and purchasing
  • workforce training and economic development
  • regulation and partnership

Read the full report at:


Based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, COWS is a national think-and-do tank that promotes “high road” solutions to social problems. These treat shared growth and opportunity, environmental sustainability, and resilient democratic institutions as necessary and achievable complements in human development. COWS is nonpartisan but values-based. We seek a world of equal opportunity and security for all.