Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Salt Lake City took on a tall order with his Living Wage Amendments Bill seeking to raise the state minimum wage to $10.25 an hour. Not only did the bill come with a $20 million fiscal note but one witness testifying against the bill pointed out that it was even higher than the minimum wage increase President Barack Obama had requested of the federal rate during his last State of the Union address. Those factors alone could have easily killed the bill dead in its tracks which is why it was actually a minor victory that the committee voted to have the bill sent to the Interim for further study before the next legislative session.---
Hemingway's House Bill 73 sought to increase the minimum wage of public and private employers to $10.25 an hour while also raising the cash wage obligation of a tipped employee such as a restaurant server to $3.13. Hemingway's bill would have allowed employees 18 and under to remain at the current minimum wage. Hemingway pitched the bill as a “conservative” piece of legislation arguing that supporting a “living wage” would help keep Utah workers and families from having to rely on government assistance to get by.
“A living wage is one that in my opinion pulls people out of poverty, it doesn't abandon them to it,” Hemingway said. “Fair wages keep our families out of social safety nets, our kids out of special education and our society mobile.”
Tara Rollins of the Utah Housing Coalition testified in favor of the bill pointing out that minimum-wage earners struggle to keep good housing, and in Utah a single minimum wage earner, making $7.25 an hour would have to work 82 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment. “We're not building housing our wage earners can afford,” Rollins said.
Members of the House Health and Human Services Committee grilled Hemingway on the cost of his bill and whether or not it would force small businesses and restaraunts to increase the cost of their goods to match the increased wages. Hemingway was disappointed that the fiscal note on his bill said it could not estimate possible revenues gained though it did predict an ongoing cost of $20 million. He argued that the money returned to workers would be money that would be recirculated in the local economy.
“These aren't people who are going to put their money into an account in Switzerland,” Hemingway said.
Still the bill drew heavy criticism for hiking the cost of goods and services, Candace Daly, director of the National Federation of Independent Business; Utah chapter pointed out that besides the cost push that would force businesses to the brink or else force them pass costs onto consumers, that raising the wage could also cause businesses to do away with minimum-wage jobs altogether. She points out that some companies will save more money to automate services rather than hiring unskilled labor, citing the example of supermarkets that have replaced cashiers with automated check-outs.
“The $10 an hour [rate] will destroy minimum-wage jobs,” Daly said.
This prevailing sentiment seemed just about to destroy Hemingway's bill when Rep. Brian Green, R-Pleasant Grove moved that the bill be sent back to the Rules Committee to be studied over the Interim to see if the 2015 Legislature might want to look into wage issues.
Greene complimented Hemingway for wanting to help minimum-wage workers but simply disagreed about the cause of the hardship of American workers.
“I agree that's getting harder and harder to get by with one living wage but I would submit that's because of the $17 trillion debt this nation has that's constantly resulting in inflation,” Greene said. Rep. Lavar Christensen, R-Draper, likewise said that it was a subject worthy of more discussion and study, but said that if all it would take was to pass a bill to help workers out, then he would then pass a bill for world peace.
“It's not that simple,” Christensen said.
With that the committee voted unanimously to refer the bill for interim study.
To read HB 73 click here. To contact Rep. Hemingway about this issue click here. To find your legislator to contact them about this issue click here. For more updates from the hill visit CityWeekly.net and follow @EricSPeterson and @ColbyFrazierLP on Twitter.