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  • Writer's pictureJoe Carson

How Fast Are Labor Costs Rising? Faster Than You Think

The widely followed employment cost index (ECI) jumped 1.2% in Q1 2024, faster than the 0.9% increase in Q4 2023, raising fears that labor costs are re-accelerating. As big as the jump in the ECI was in Q1, another labor cost measure (ECEC) shows employee costs are rising even faster. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the government agency in charge of reporting labor market data, provides two crucial measures of employee costs: the employment cost index (ECI) and employer costs for employee compensation (ECEC). Both measures, with a similar scope covering 5500 to 5600 private industry establishments and 23000 occupational observations, play a pivotal role in labor cost analysis. However, it's important to note that the ECI excludes employment shifts among occupations and industries, while the ECEC does not, making the ECEC an equally important comprehensive measure of total current employment costs. 

The two measures are simple to understand: the starting point for both measures is the change in wages, but if people move to higher-paying jobs or shift occupations because of the promise of higher pay, the ECEC measures will grow faster than the ECI. In contrast, if the opposite is true, when the jobless rate is high, job openings are low, and people have to accept lower-paying jobs, the ECI would increase faster than the ECEC.  

In the last several years, the labor market has been characterized by a record number of job openings, which have encouraged people to shift industries and occupations in search of higher pay. The labor cost data confirms this did happen. Private industry wage costs in the ECEC have outpaced the increases in the ECI every year, and the increase in 2023 of 6.9% was the largest on record and 270 basis points over the increase in the ECI. 

The Q1 2024 report for ECEC is due on June 18. Based on the still high number of job openings and low jobless rate, the Q1 rise in the ECEC index should exceed the ECI increase, adding to current fears of higher labor costs feeding into inflation numbers. 

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