Bill to raise Utah minimum wage to $15 an hour stalls in House committee

The Legislature has considered several efforts to raise the minimum wage in recent years, but none of them has made it far.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Clare Collard, then a Democratic candidate for House District 12, talks to supporters before knocking on doors in Tooele, on July 6, 2018. Collard ran a bill in this year's legislative session seeking to incrementally raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026.

A bill that would incrementally increase Utah’s minimum wage to a peak of $15 an hour by July 2026 stalled in a House committee on Thursday, as Republicans worried it would kill jobs and hurt the economy prevailed over Democrats who said it would help lift people out of poverty.

Freshman Rep. Clare Collard, D-Magna and the bill’s sponsor, told her colleagues ahead of the vote that the proposal would affect approximately 19,000 Utahns who are currently making the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour — a figure that hasn’t increased with inflation since 2008.

“I have people in my district who are trying to live on $1,256 per month, when the rent on a two bedroom apartment you have to make $19.53 an hour,” she told the House Business and Labor Committee on Thursday. “The math doesn’t add up.”

Collard argued that her bill — which would also raise the minimum wage for tipped employees from $2.13 an hour to $5 an hour — would bring “thousands of people out of poverty” and help those who are struggling to make ends meet gain self sufficiency. Many business owners she’s spoken to are already paying anywhere between $11 and $14 an hour, but she said the market hasn’t “dictated that change” enough and needs a push from the government.

The Legislature has considered several efforts to raise the minimum wage in recent years, and none of them has made it far.

But Jean Hill, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, expressed hope that this was the year for such a move, as the coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of essential workers to the economy.

“I do think this year with the pandemic we’ve learned a lot of lessons,” said Hill, who presented the bill with Collard on Thursday. “And one of those lessons is who our essential workers are, and many of those essential workers are making the minimum wage and unable to actually care for their families on the wages they’re making — even though we have all relied on them to bring us essential services, such as grocery store clerks.”

Raising the minimum wage, she argued, would stimulate the economy by putting more money in the hands of workers, prevent people from entering homelessness as housing costs continue to rise and encourage Utahns to start families.

But the representatives of business interests who spoke during the public comment period painted a gloomier picture of a minimum wage increase, arguing that such a government demand would harm small businesses already struggling to recover from the pandemic.

“The timing on this is just really, really difficult,” said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association. “We have small businesses, many of which are going through trying to recover from the pandemic and the economic effects of that. And this would crush those businesses.”

Other opponents noted that the bill did not take into account differences in regional economies across the state and said a move to increase the minimum wage would ultimately push people out of the workforce in favor of automation.

“If we enact a drastic increase in the minimum wage, which this bill seeks to do, businesses would respond by eliminating positions, cutting hours and looking for new ways to implement labor-saving technology,” argued Heather Andrews, state director for Americans for Prosperity Utah.

The market should drive wages, opponents said — not the government.

The debate over raising the minimum wage is also underway in Washington, D.C., as President Joe Biden has attempted to add a $15-an-hour federal wage increase to his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, noted his concerns about Collard’s bill in light of a recent report on that effort from the Congressional Budget Office. It said the federal minimum wage policy would lift 900,000 people out of poverty and raise income for 17 million people — but would at the same time cost 1.4 million jobs and increase the deficit by $54 billion over 10 years.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, ultimately voted to table the bill, citing the economic concerns opponents had raised.

“I agree with them,” he said. “I don’t think $15 an hour, the minimum wages that are proposed, are appropriate.”

Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, also spoke against the bill, noting that one of his daughters recently landed a job during her first semester of college that pays $13 an hour and that his young son found a job at $12 an hour a few years ago.

“And these are unskilled — I mean, my daughter was on an assembly line,” he said. “She looked like Lucille Ball in that show where she was stuffing chocolates in her mouth. And all the people in the line were making at least that or more.”

As businesses work to attract employees in the state’s low unemployment economy, he said employers are already increasing wages without government intervention in an effort to attract employees.

House Minority Leader Brian King, who ran a bill in 2018 that attempted to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour, said he wanted to see Collard’s legislation move forward and joined the committee’s two other Democrats in voting against the motion to table the proposal.

“There’s a lot of debate about the impact of raising the minimum wage,” he said, “but one thing that’s inarguable is that it puts more money in the pockets of working people, and I think that’s what we need to do. We need to address the real life, every day demands of individuals who are trying to make ends meet.”

Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., have already adopted minimum wages above the federal $7.25, according to the Associated Press. After Thursday’s vote, Utah appears unlikely to join them.