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SALT LAKE CITY — While Utah boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 3.4 percent and its economy is among the best-performing in the nation with job growth at 4 percent, those factors don’t always translate into better wages for workers.
Tony Zani, 37, is a literacy coach for the Salt Lake City School District. He moved to Utah with his wife in 2008 so she could pursue an employment opportunity, leaving behind Virginia and its higher wages.
“My experience there was much higher pay,” he said. “I took a $10,000 pay cut to teach in Utah.”
He said coming to Utah as a teacher was shock.
“Virginia placed a great value on paying for good teachers and treating them well," Zani said. “Utah places a value on getting as much as possible out of teachers for the least amount of money.”
Others may debate Utah's value on education. But Zani is not the first person to lament the level of pay in Utah compared to other states.
Utah ranks 37th among all 50 states year over year, lagging behind annual inflation and resulting in a stagnant standard of living, according to data compiled by the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Average wages in Utah for the period from fourth quarter 2012 through third quarter 2013 came to $41,887, while the average pay for fourth quarter 2013 through third quarter 2014 registered at $42,466.
“Virginia placed a great value on paying for good teachers and treating them well. Utah places a value on getting as much as possible out of teachers for the least amount of money.” - Tony Zani, teacher
“We’ve had wage growth that’s been pretty slow,” said department chief economist Carrie Mayne. “Though some industries have done better, overall (wages) have not kept up with inflation.”
When adjusted for inflation, wage growth in Utah has declined 1.1 percent, a trend that has played out across the country as well, Mayne said.
“It’s absolutely a national phenomenon,” she said. While many states have experienced reasonable growth in pay, when modified for the rise in inflation, the increase in wages has failed to climb enough to match the rise in the cost of living, she said.
Advocates for better wages claim the people most affected by flat wages are the economically disadvantaged.
In February, a report released by Voices for Utah Children showed that even though Utah wages have recovered from the economic downturn more quickly than wages in other parts of the nation, they remain below prerecession levels, said Matthew Weinstein, state priorities partnership director for the nonprofit child advocacy organization.
Wage inequality has grown in Utah, he said.
“For folks at the bottom of the economy, it has made things much tougher,” Weinstein said. The lower 40 percent of wage earners today are worse off in Utah than nationally, he said.
The report said new jobs in Utah pay far less than those they replaced. Positions lost in first quarter 2008 to first quarter 2010 had an average wage of $53,277, while jobs added from second quarter 2010 to second quarter 2014 had an average wage of $41,342, about a 22 percent decline.
Utah is experiencing a troubling gap between productivity growth and wage growth, he said.
While Utah has gained a reputation for paying lower wages compared to other states, the tendency isn’t true in all cases. For instance, the state’s rapidly expanding technology sector has produced higher-paying positions that compare favorably to those in other states, said Justin Rohatinsky, senior vice president and branch manager with global employment firm Robert Half International.
“In Utah, we are literally working on (recruiting for tech) positions where the unemployment rate is half of a percent,” he said. “When you get that sort of imbalance between the supply and demand for the position, that drives salaries up.”
Wage growth for information sector
The department data showed that the highest adjusted wage growth was reported in the information sector, where pay increased by 11.1 percent from 2010 to 2014, nearly twice the growth of the second highest industry — finance — at 6.1 percent.
Rohatinsky said the wage growth in information technology during the past 12 months has been the highest he has seen in years.
Eagle Mountain resident Samantha Albrecht, 26, has been the beneficiary of that strong job market. Not long ago, she moved to Alabama for her husband’s military assignment.
However, she was unable to find any well-paying, full-time positions in her 18 months there.
“For a couple of months I worked at a veterinarian’s office, for a temp company and customer service,” she said. None of the positions paid more than a bit over minimum wage, she said.
“I went from making about $38,000 a year to $10.50 an hour,” Albrecht said.
She recently moved back to Utah and was quickly able to secure a position as an account manager for a medical software company that paid nearly double what she was making in Alabama.
She said that the number of good-paying positions there was much smaller than what is available in Utah, so much so that she left before her husband’s assignment was completed.
“There were a lot more jobs open here,” she said.
Expanding and improving Utah's economic environment
Meanwhile, the state agency tasked with helping to expand and improve the state’s economic environment said it continues to work to create programs aimed at delivering jobs that will help individuals provide good salaries and better benefits for themselves and their families over the long term.
“We at (the Governor’s Office of Economic Development) work very hard to develop high-wage jobs in our economic development programs, such as with our corporate incentives, which require the aggregate average wages of newly created jobs should exceed their community averages by companies we work with in urban development and at least 100 percent in rural job development,” said Ben Hart, managing director of the GOED workforce development initiative.
“We are working full speed ahead to bring as many high-paying jobs to the state as we can.”