Facts from the Frontline: Getting By in Milwaukee’s Abundant Low Wage Service Jobs

Today, COWS released Facts from the Frontline: Getting By in Milwaukee’s Abundant Low Wage Service Jobs, a deep look into the city’s low-wage service jobs across multiple industries and occupations. The report, a collaboration with the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH) and Kids Forward, finds that more than 100,000 of Milwaukee residents make less than $15 per hour.

“There can be no solution to Milwaukee’s most pressing economic problems, including its racial divide, without sustained attention to improving work and wages in these jobs,” said COWS Associate Director Laura Dresser, who authored the report.

A few key findings:

Of the 242,000 workers who live in Milwaukee, over 40 percent earn less than $15 per hour. Black and brown workers are much more likely to hold these low-wage jobs.

For the more than 100,000 Milwaukee workers paid under $15 per hour, only 47 percent have health insurance through their work. For the city’s workers with better paying jobs, 80 percent get this benefit from their employer.

While roughly 30 percent of Milwaukee’s white workers hold very low-wage jobs, 51 percent of its Black workers and 56 percent of its Hispanic workers do.

Milwaukee’s low-wage jobs are concentrated in specific industries. 

Just three industries – Arts, Accommodation, and Food Service; Retail Trade; and Education, Health Care, and Social Assistance – account for more than 60 percent of the city’s low-wage jobs. In these industries and each occupation we analyzed, Black and brown workers are much more likely than their white peers to hold very low-wage jobs.

Milwaukee workers are mobilizing to improve the city’s service jobs.

Alongside the data, this report profiles Milwaukee service workers who are at the forefront of improving the city’s low-wage jobs. Workers consistently point to the ways union representation is building stronger job quality and security in their work.

“Milwaukee’s service industries increasingly define and constrain economic opportunity for workers leaving too many of them in poverty, without health insurance, and struggling to support their children,” said Dresser. “Improving these now abundant service jobs is essential to securing a stronger and more equal Milwaukee.”

Facts from the Frontline, along with its companion reports Playing with Public Money in Milwaukee: Data, Context, and Questions on Soccer Stadiums and Worker Power Levels the Playing Field: Community Benefits for Public Subsidies in the Iron District, aim to bring greater public attention to the crisis in Milwaukee’s service jobs and the concrete public and private strategies that can improve them.

Facts from the Frontline is a product of the “EARN in the Midwest” project in Wisconsin, a collaborative of COWS, Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH), and Kids Forward.

Read the full report at: https://cows.org/publications/facts-from-the-frontline.



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.


The Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH) is an organization of service and hospitality workers in Milwaukee focused on improving employment and workforce standards in our industries. MASH addresses the challenges facing workers and employers in order to transform employment, industries, our community, and our lives.


Headquartered in Madison, Kids Forward inspires action and promotes access to opportunity for every kid, every family, and every community in Wisconsin, notably children and families of color and those furthest from opportunity. Using a research- and community-informed approach, Kids Forward advocates for effective, long-lasting solutions that break down barriers to success for children and families.