Being a journalist in 2022 means receiving nearly incessant public relations pitches in your email inbox. In particular, P.R. teams have figured out that one surefire way to get media attention is to rank cities and states against one another, in any category possible.
Just this week, for example, I’ve received the following pitches:
• Salt Lake City was the 41st “Best City for Chocolate Lovers.”
• Salt Lake City was the third “Best City for Country Music Fans.”
• Salt Lake City was the 61st ranked “Cities Where Lawns Go to Die.”
And so on and so on. The big caveat with all of these rankings is that they can tend to use some sketchy underlying metrics. For example, one aspect of the city’s third-place country music rating was its high placement in the “Number of Country Music and Related Museums” category. I’m, uh, unaware of Salt Lake City’s country music museum.
Another such ranking did catch my eye: Utah being ranked No. 44 in the “Best and Worst States to Work in America.” First, this wasn’t put together by a lawn company — indeed, this was a report from Oxfam, named after the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. It’s a highly regarded international nonprofit fighting world poverty, lending significant reputation points to the report. Then, the underlying statistics used were also well-cited: having a bibliography in a data report is always a good sign, but having a lengthy one is even better.
In other words, unlike the country music list, Oxfam’s report is worth the effort to dissect. Are we really such a bad place for people to work?
In the report, each state is ranked by 17 metrics in three categories: wages, worker protections and the right of workers to organize.
This week, we’ll look at the wages category; next week, we’ll tackle the latter two elements.
The wages dimension makes up 40% of Oxfam’s final ranking, and is comprised of the following five statistics. All of them have to do with minimum wage in some way.
15%: ratio of minimum wage to cost of living
Utah’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour — the federal minimum.
5%: ratio of tipped cash wage to minimum wage
For tipped employees, Utah’s minimum wage is $2.13 an hour, also the federal minimum. Utah joins 15 other states in not having a higher wage for tipped workers.
5%: local control of minimum wage
In 2001, Utah also passed a state law preventing any city or county from setting a higher minimum wage, because Republicans — despite their repeated mantra — often vote as if local control is bad.
5%: minimum wage extension to farmworkers
Some farmworkers get minimum wage protections in Utah, but others don’t. In particular, those “principally engaged in the range production of livestock,” harvest laborers paid on “piece rate basis,” those employed less than 13 calendar weeks in the preceding calendar year, and retirees performing work as a condition of residence on a farm or ranch don’t have to be paid minimum wage.
10%: ratio of unemployment to cost of living
A close reading of this category indicates it also deals with the minimum wage — the unemployment payment number used is for those who are on a full-time minimum wage. Utah’s unemployment benefits are actually pretty middle-of-the-road, it seems.
So, yes, based on those metrics, Utah ranks a paltry 43rd in the worker wages category.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think minimum wage is a very representative way of looking at the issue of worker pay.
In particular, there were 866,000 hourly employees in Utah in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In total, 13,000 of those had earnings of minimum wage or below.
We should care about those 13,000 people, for sure. We should actively try to improve their lives — including by boosting the minimum wage. But they make up just 1.5% of Utah’s total hourly workforce. Focusing exclusively on the minimum wage doesn’t represent the majority of actual workers in the state. Nor, frankly, does it represent most of those who face poverty, Oxfam’s main interest. According to the Census Bureau, 243,000 Utahns were living in poverty in 2021; minimum wagers just aren’t the biggest problem here.
But wait, Andy! If the minimum wage were raised, like in 31 other states, wouldn’t there be more people at the minimum wage level? That 13,000 is made artificially low by Utah’s wage inaction.
Of course. But the truth of the matter is that Utah’s wages actually look pretty good — relative to other U.S. states, anyway. Here’s a compelling graph of Utah’s income curve: How many households make how much money? The red line is Utah, the black line is the U.S. average, and the gray bands represent the spectrum of the other U.S. states.
You can see Utah has more households making $45,000 and above than most other states, and fewer households making under $35,000 than most other states. Even at the lowest ends, Utah has way fewer households making low wages. Some of this, no doubt, is due to Utah’s larger average household size. But it’s also hard to find any other evidence of bottom-10 wages in Utah — this look at Bureau of Economic Analysis data, for example, had the state ranked 29th.
Now, can Utah improve with its wages? Absolutely. Is it unacceptable to have 13,000 Utahns making only $7.25 an hour, less than 20% of the cost of living here? Yes. Is it avoidable that we have 243,000 Utahns living in poverty? Of course. Do other developed countries put Americans to shame with regards to helping the bottom? You bet.
But are Utah’s wages significantly worse than other states? I don’t see the evidence in Oxfam’s report.
Next week, though, we’ll look at other aspects of Utah’s environment for employees — including worker protection laws. Utah has some but lacks significant others. How does it compare to other states? We’ll find out then.
Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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