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Utah Study Reveals the Face of Minimum Wage Earners in Utah

December 14, 2006 — A new study by researchers in the Center for Public Policy & Administration at the University of Utah shows the majority of workers earning the minimum wage in Utah are young men. National data shows women are most likely to earn no more than the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. Other than the difference in gender, the Utah data shows an overall similarity to the national findings.

Community advocate Pamela Atkinson chaired the working group that commissioned the study from the University of Utah. “The purpose of this study was to determine the characteristics of the Utahans who are earning minimum wage. The results were not too surprising, although we thought that there would have been more people under 19 earning the minimum wage,” said Atkinson.

The debate over the minimum wage has continued since before its inception in 1938 to the present with legislation in Congress and several states to raise the wage above the $5.15 level set in 1997. The call to change the minimum wage is driven by its decreasing value over time.

The survey conducted in September 2006 of 3,800 Utah businesses was consistent with the information gathered from the Census. A very high percentage of those earning minimum wage in Utah work part-time (82%). Only 17 percent were age 19 or younger and most were men (55%). The survey results indicate that the highest percentage of minimum wage earners in Utah are white, found primarily in food service with significant numbers in recreation/fitness centers, office maintenance, and retail (grocery stores). Most are concentrated along the Wasatch Front, with over half in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. A very large percentage of minimum wage workers were employed by medium-sized businesses (71%).

Nationally, there are approximately two million workers (2.5% of the hourly-paid workforce) who earn minimum wage. The characteristics of these workers is that they tend to be younger (ages 20-24 is the largest group), female (66%), mostly Caucasian, and work part-time. Most minimum wage workers work in food services occupations and most are fairly well educated (29% with high school diplomas and another 34% with some college education). Sixty-five percent of all workers earning minimum wage in the U.S. have never been married.

Since 1968, the value of the minimum wage has experienced a declining trend punctuated by periodic adjustments, but because the federal minimum wage is set by Congress and is not indexed for inflation, its value continues to decline. W. David Patton, Director, University of Utah Center for Public Policy & Administration says the decline in the real value of the minimum wage is particularly felt by those who may be supporting a family. “From 1959, when the data was first collected, to 1981, the minimum wage tracked very closely to the federal poverty level for a family of three. Since 1981, however, the annual earnings of a head of household earning minimum wage have fallen further below this poverty measure.”

Congress has not increased the minimum wage in nearly ten years. This is the longest period without an increase since the rate was established at $0.25 in 1938. Twenty-nine states have decided to change the minimum wage rate well above the federal rate. The states with the highest rates are Washington ($7.63) and Oregon ($7.50), with both states’ rates indexed for inflation.

The full study is available at