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Utah liquor store employees might get a raise — if lawmakers go along

SB137 would add $4.3 million to the DABC budget to bring salaries to market averages.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Tom Gibbs arranges a bottle in the display case in the Premium section on opening day of the new state liquor and wine store in Saratoga Springs, on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. If lawmakers approve, liquor story employees could get raises.

The starting salary for a full-time clerk at most of Utah’s state-run liquor stores is $11.32 an hour — several dollars below the average pay at most retail stores.

The wages are even worse for part-time employees, who begin at $9.94 an hour.

With stunningly low pay, Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control cannot keep existing employees or land new ones.

But SB137, a bill with bipartisan backing, is making its way through the Legislature and could boost those hourly wages and ensure that the pay keeps pace in the future. It cleared the Senate in a 29-0 vote and now goes to the House.

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“This is a critical situation,” Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, the measure’s Senate sponsor, said during a recent floor discussion. “It would really bring us up to market standards.”

It is too early to say how much more hourly employees could expect to see in their paychecks. But for some positions, hourly wages would have to increase more than $2 an hour to meet the state’s market average, DABC estimates have shown.

If approved, SB137 would increase the DABC yearly base budget by $4.3 million to bring salaries for retail clerks, warehouse workers, store managers and assistant managers up to market standards.

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The bill also would make store wages part of the agency’s “cost of doing business” — which means liquor store employee pay no longer would be part of the DABC’s yearly budget request to the Legislature. The spending request has been subject to the whims of conservative lawmakers, many of whom abstain for drinking alcohol for religious reasons.

While the DABC generates millions for the state each year, it does not keep any of the profits. Under state law, all net proceeds are given to the state, and the Legislature decides how much money the agency can keep for operations.

Currently, that includes store employee wages.

An agency review conducted for Gov. Spencer Cox shows turnover rates at the DABC exceeded 140% for the agency’s part-time workforce, and 109% for all employees.

While other state agencies have similar problems retaining employees, the DABC turnover rate is the worst in the state.

Other employers hiring for similar roles in retail, warehousing and distribution pay much higher wages and have less-stringent hiring practices. Under state law, DABC employees must be 21 or older and pass a background check.

“Very few private businesses,” the report said, “would claim ‘operational excellence’ operating at this level of attrition.”

Lawmakers from both political parties have recognized the need to to treat retail employees at the DABC differently than other state workers.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who was among several lawmakers who studied the issue this summer, spoke in favor of SB137. He said the new DABC pay scale would be determined by an audit conducted by the Department of Human Resource Management and based on “what other business are paying like employees.”

Stevenson and Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, addressed the pay issue several years ago, when salaries were bumped up, but it was a temporary fix that has worsened with Utah’s low unemployment rate.

“This is way overdue,” said Mayne, who for years has advocated for liquor store improvements. “It’s a fairness issues. They are underpaid and have not been given the respect they deserve for years.”

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