Utah’s minimum wage is a women’s issue
The State of Utah defers to the federal government to set its minimum wage. It is currently $7.25 per hour. For tipped employees, the minimum wage is $2.13 per hour.
A freshman Democrat in the Utah House of Representatives is pushing legislation to raise those rates so that minimum wage workers will be paid a "living wage."
Rep. Justin Miller (House Dist. 40) has a background in representing laborers. "I’m an economist by trade," he told The Park Record and works for "the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees, which is the largest union within the AFL-CIO, representing public employees."
In last year’s legislative session, Rep. Lynn Hemingway pushed similar legislation. "Initially, I did not know there would be any interest at all in the bill by the [House Health and Human Services] Committee," he told The Park Record a year ago. "At the end of the hearing, there was a real interest in delving into this issue a little further."
Indeed, raises to the minimum wage appear to be popular with voters in Republican-dominated states. This past November, voters in four "red" states passed minimum-wage increases via ballot measures: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Hemingway retired and Miller was elected to his seat in November’s election. They spoke about the minimum wage.
"One of the conversations we had early on," Miller said, "and something I very much believed in, was having somebody in the legislature continue the fight for Utah’s working families."
Miller says he is taking a different approach than Hemingway. While Hemingway introduced one bill that tackled several minimum wage issues, Miller has broken the legislation apart into two bills — a Living Wage bill (H.B. 309), to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.25, and a Tipped Employee Wage Amendments bill (H.B. 236), to raise the minimum wage for tipped employees up to the minimum rate for all workers and to tie the minimum rate going forward to either inflation or the Consumer Price Index.
"There was far more of an appetite to raise the tipped minimum wage, than doing the full across the board $7.25," Miller said. "So H.B. 236, that’s really the bill that I’m pushing with vigor. It raises the tipped employees minimum wage from $2.13 up to the minimum wage, which is $7.25. My motivation for this is fairly clear, once you look at the compilation of bills I’m running."
Two-thirds of Utah’s tipped employees are women, he said.
"The bottom line for me on this is it’s a women in the workplace issue. And hopefully we’ll begin to turn the tide, and at least change the perception, that Utah does care about women in the workplace, Utah does care about working families and hopefully this will raise [the state] a couple of notches on the proverbial ranking of states."
"The national research on this is pretty staggering. The people who work tipped jobs have a higher propensity to live in poverty and going from $2.13 to $7.25 an hour will actually estimate a 37-percent decrease in the poverty rate among these people — and there’s real numbers behind that. Our own fiscal staff here at the Legislature estimates there’s about 20,000 Utahns who fit into this job category," he said.
Miller says the majority of those 20,000 Utahns are waiters and bartenders, but also include workers like hotel staff employees and hair stylists.
Hans Fuegi, owner of Grub Steak Restaurant and board member of the Park City Area Restaurant Association, said that, while he’s not familiar with the proposed legislation, a wage increase for tipped employees would not have much effect in the Park City area.
"I’m not sure it’s all that relevant really, because it’s very seldom that tipped employees don’t get to that $7.25 an hour, at least I think in our area," he said.
"I’d be highly surprised if you could find employees that would be willing to accept a position at below the $7.25 an hour if, with the tips, they wouldn’t reach the $7.25 an hour," Fuegi continued. "In this labor market, which has tightened substantially in the last couple years, I just don’t know of too many jobs that don’t pay at least $7.25 an hour, certainly including the tips.
"I’m not all that familiar with what may be happening in the Salt Lake Valley, but up here the market is just above that."
The Legislature’s staff produced a fiscal note for the Tipped Employee Wage Amendments bill that projected an increase of up to $10,650 per year for those 20,000.
"Those people are not going to be going out — although some would argue that they probably should — going out and buying Roth IRAs with this additional income and investing in the stock market," Miller explained. "These individuals are far more likely to turn around and take that $10,000 and put it back into the economy, whether it’s through child care or new car payments or rent or education, they have a much higher propensity to reinvest in the economy."
"We’re seeing data come out of the National Restaurant Association’s 2013 book, where states that actually have raised their $2.13 and put tipped employees up to the standard of the minimum wage, are seeing double-digit growth over the next year. And these aren’t crazy liberal states, either. Yes, California is one of them, but then so is Montana and so is Washington and all these states are going to be seeing significant growth within their restaurant industry," he said.
The Democrat expressed a goal that his Republican colleagues likely share: reducing reliance on government.
"I’m hoping that as we do lift individuals out of poverty they’ll become less reliant on the state as well. Hopefully we’ll be able to drop them off the social service rolls, food stamps, welfare, Section 8 housing, which in the long run will save the taxpayers money," he said.
"It really goes to a core philosophy of mine, which is: If you work 40 hours a week, you shouldn’t be living in poverty. And when that happens and you’re stuck getting two or three different jobs, that has a significant impact upon families," he said.
"This isn’t the 1950s anymore. A family of four can’t live off of one breadwinner’s income anymore."
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