About 30 people protested at the Capitol Sunday afternoon against a bill they say could strip dignity from workers and their families if passed.

SB138 on minimum wage applicability proposes to prohibit cities and counties from passing minimum-wage rates that are different from the federal and state minimum wage.

Religious, nonprofit and union leaders said state government has no right getting into matters of local government. If counties and cities realize the cost of living in their areas warrant a wage that is higher than the state and federal rate, which now is $5.15 per hour, they have the right to pass laws raising it.

In a phone interview with the Deseret News, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said that would make for inconsistency and confusion.

It's unfair, for instance, to make a fast-food restaurant chain pay employees in one area $7 per hour, in another $6 and in another $5.15, he said.

Stephenson said that although he's fairly sure no Utah cities or counties have tried to pass their own minimum wages, such a movement is sweeping throughout the country.

Linda Hilton, an organizer of Sunday's protest and director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, said the movement has stuck in about 30 cities and counties throughout the United States that have realized the minimum wage is far lower than the "living wage," the wage in which people can sustain themselves without the help of charities or government.

In many places, including Utah, minimum wage is a poverty wage, Hilton said.

"Who can live on 200 bucks a week?" asked Ken Paulson, who was representing a carpenter's union.

Mark Price, of the University of Utah Department of Economics, said that while the cost of living here is 6 percent higher than other places, "wages in this state are an average 16 percent lower than the national average."

Price also said the purchasing power of the minium wage has fallen by 17 percent since the 1960s.

Workers living on poverty wages "don't contribute dollars back into the community," said Mark Nelson, a plumber and volunteer with Jobs with Justice.

Nelson said workers living on poverty wages have no disposable income, which hurts communities' businesses in the end.

Also, less income means less money workers can pay in taxes. And usually people living on $5.15 per hour use government services that cost more than they contribute. Usually, families trying to survive on $5.15 need food stamps and subsidized medical insurance and day care, Hilton said.

"Study after study shows that raising wages increases job productivity, retention and morale," said Lorna Vogt of Jobs with Justice.

The bill is slated to go before Business Labor Committee perhaps as soon as this week.

Hilton said the group will continue to fight it.


E-MAIL: lhancock@desnews.com