SALT LAKE CITY — Minimum wage in Utah currently sits at $7.25 — on par with the federal minimum wage.
But 19 states already pay more, and President Barack Obama has said he would support a measure to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10.
Fast food workers nationwide recently gathered in protest or walked off the job, and the issue is being discussed across the country.
"The argument of inequality is certainly in the forefront right now," said Jim Wood, director of the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic Business and Research. "There was a lot of discussion of that … from the last presidential election, and it's going to be a big issues in the coming presidential election."
Wood said minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.60 — or $10.50 when adjusted. That context, he said, is one argument offered for increasing the minimum wage.
"The minimum wage is something we should consider raising," he said, adding that most of Utah's neighboring states have a minimum wage higher than the federal standard.
Minimum wage in Washington state is more than $9. "I don't think you can show any evidence that it's hurt their job growth," Wood said.
On the other side of the argument, however, are the increased costs to business owners. Wood said this could "give an incentive to firms to adopt technology, which in the end will replace those workers so the jobs will no longer exist."
The national restaurant chain Applebee's recently announced it would install 100,000 tabletop tablets for ordering and payments at its restaurants next year. Chili's announced a similar move. Published reports say the chains' intentions aren't to replace servers, but some are concerned about that.
The original proponents of minimum wage see it as a way to improve distribution of income, Wood said. Credible economists fall on both sides, with some arguing that setting wages is a fundamentally bad idea and others saying it's a way to decrease inequality.
"I wish we had a little higher incomes in Utah," Wood said. "Incomes are important."
But Marty Carpenter, spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber, isn't sure the state should go so far as to offer a $15 minimum wage.
"We think we want to help our fellow man, but there is a ripple effect to (raising the minimum rage) and generally those are negative consequences," he said.
Lost jobs, for one, he said. Should employers be required to pay employees more, they may have to cut hours or the number of employees altogether.
"Unfortunately, the push to increase minimum wage ultimately would result in hurting the very people who many people are trying to help by doing so," Carpenter said. "It will end up that most likely some of those folks will lose their jobs and the others who remain will have more work to do to justify the increase in the pay."
He also thinks the increase would provide no long-term benefit to the minimum wage earner.
"The system is set up so that each individual should be able to enhance their skills, provide more value for an employer or start their own business where they can provide value to their costumers and hire other people," Carpenter said. "But unless you're working to enhance those skills just artificially changing what we're required to pay someone for the work they're doing now isn't beneficial to the entire system."
The two lone women who showed up at a recent failed Salt Lake City protest at a McDonald's on 2100 South don't make minimum wage or know anyone who currently does. But they wanted to be there to make a stand and were mostly just disappointed there weren't others to join them.
"I wish more people would show they cared," Judy Lord said. "There are too many people who are working sometimes two part-time jobs, sometimes a full-time job, but they're not making a living wage."
Contributing: Rich Piatt, Peter Samore
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