Bid to raise minimum wage in Utah put on hold amid debate over free market economy

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, speaks in the
House chamber during the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the
Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Legislators' free market concerns stalled a bill that would have increased the minimum wage for Utah residents.

"I just don't believe, and I believe the general public doesn't believe, that anyone working full time should be living in poverty," said HB284 sponsor Rep. Clare Collard, D-Magna. "Our current minimum wage does not give you tons a chance to thrive."

HB284 would reflect federal efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Collard's bill would start higher than what President Joe Biden proposes, with $12 beginning in July and raising to the full $15 by July 2026. Collard said that given the cost of living in Utah, Biden's $9.50 per hour proposal wasn't enough.

"I have people in my district who are working two and three jobs to keep a roof over their head. I have families who are working and students in high school who are also working full time to help maintain a lifestyle," Collard said. "I would urge you to consider raising this minimum wage."

She noted there are 19,000 Utahns currently making minimum wage.

Collard's bill met resistance over whether the free market should dictate when employers raise their wages over the current federal guidelines of $7.25 set in 2009.

She said business owners have told her they already cannot hire people at the current wage, so they raised their wages to between $11 and $14 per hour.

"So the market has dictated that change," she said.

I just don't believe, and I believe the general public doesn't believe, that anyone working full time should be living in poverty.

–Rep. Clare Collard, D-Magna

But Jordan Hess, vice president of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, argued it should remain the free market that makes those decisions and a statewide mandated minimum would hurt Utah's rural areas.

"We don't feel that the government should set those wages. The free market economy that our country has been built on, although imperfect, has raised more people out of poverty than any other economic system in the history of the world," he said.

"And a $15 minimum wage could decimate a lot of our small businesses. ... If $15 an hour is great for Salt Lake County, great. Well, that's not gonna work in Washington County," Hess said.

Heather Andrews, Utah state director for Americans for Prosperity, said there is no "significant evidence" that higher minimum wages mean higher earnings later in life.

"It actually eliminates employment opportunities, it depresses job growth, and harms small businesses and harms the consumers who will be forced to bear the brunt of costs imposed on businesses," Andrews said.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, disagreed with her assessment.

"This is not an economy that's struggling at all," King said. "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 is we need to address the real-life, everyday demands of individuals who are trying to make ends meet."

The House Business and Labor Committee on Thursday tabled the measure on a 10-3 vote along party lines.

Correction: An earlier version misidentified Jordan Hess as the CEO of the St. George Chamber of Commerce. He is the vice president of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce.

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