ST. GEORGE — Labor Day: For most, it marks the end of summer and is one of the last opportunities to throw barbecues and spend time in the sun before the chill of fall sets in. But few observe the holiday for its original purpose when it was established in 1894, a national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of the country.
“What a lot of folks don’t realize is that the 40-hour work week, two weeks of vacation, health care benefits – all the other benefits they get – are because of labor unions,” state Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-District 40, said.
How best to secure and provide benefits to workers continues to be the subject of national debate to this day.
Two of the hot-button issues at the forefront of those debates over labor include health insurance benefits and minimum wage. St. George News set out to ask business and political leaders along with union proponents where they stand on these two subjects from a Southern Utah perspective.
Healthy workforce equals a better workforce
“I think it’s in the businesses’ best interest to have healthy employees,” state Sen. Don Ipson, R-District 29 in Southern Utah, said, “to have happy employees, and I think we have a responsibility to provide good benefits.”
Ipson, who is also president and CEO of St. George-based DATs Trucking, wasn’t alone in his opinion that businesses share responsibility in helping to keep their labor force healthy.
“A healthy workforce is a better workforce,” retired school teacher and labor union advocate Dorothy Engelman said.
Engelman ran as the democratic challenger against Ipson in the 2016 general election for the state senate seat he currently holds.
“If you provide health care that enables your employee to go and have a yearly exam, that they can be proactive about their health, find things before they get too bad or too expensive,” Engelman said, “they’re going to show up for work every day.”
Employer-provided health care insurance may extend beyond an individual worker, also benefiting that employee’s family.
“It’s clearly on the minds of everyone, particularly when they’re looking to support a family with other dependents, including children,” state Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-District 74 of Southern Utah, said.
Snow is a founding partner of Snow Jensen & Reece, a law firm with over 30 years of practice in St. George.
In his experience in recruiting and retaining employees, Snow said many job candidates look at health care benefits as one of the most important incentives for employment.
“I think successful employers also recognize that it is a necessity, whenever they can provide it,” Snow said, “in order for them to compete for the best, most qualified labor.”
Walt Brooks, R-District 75 in Southern Utah, said providing health care benefits acts as a great recruiting tool in his experience as president of software development company RxTrax.
“I think the whole reason employers provide health care is probably the right reason in the beginning, and that’s to attract better talent,” Brooks said. “I think that’s great, because it’s kind of a free-market thing. Employers get to choose to do that if they wish. And employees get to work where they feel like is going to be best for them.”
However, a question remains: If providing health care benefits is essential to both finding good candidates and maintaining a healthy workforce, should it be mandatory for a company to provide those benefits?
“I think it’s a great responsibility of employers to provide health care benefits, depending on the size of the business,” Engelman said. “If it’s a two- or three-people business, I can understand why that would be difficult, but I think anybody with over 20 employees should definitely have to provide some type of insurance coverage or pay into employee health care.”
Engelman said such employers should be required to offer health care benefits regardless of an employee’s part- or full-time status.
“I think that’s something that employers really take advantage of their employees at, and it’s one of the reasons that so many people in Utah end up working two jobs,” she said. “They can’t find jobs that are full time because the employer doesn’t want to have to pay the benefits.”
The Utah Legislature has the legal ability, if it so chooses, to mandate what benefits an employer must disperse.
“The last thing I think the Legislature needs to do is get involved in trying to tell our independent businesses how they should run their business,” Ipson said. “I don’t think people that are employing people need more regulations telling them what to do. I don’t think that’s where the lack of health insurance is, anyway.”
Brooks suggested that opening the health insurance market to wider competition is a better solution.
“I think there’s one simple thing that can be done on the federal level, and that is allow competition to happen,” Brooks said. “So, allow someone in St. George to buy health insurance from someone in Iowa or someone in Florida. It allows insurance companies to be more competitive, which usually drives prices down and services up.”
Snow said he advocates another approach that includes incentivizing businesses that provide generous benefits to employees with tax breaks through post-performance incentive programs when companies prove competitive employment packages after a certain time allotment.
“It effectively creates a little more competition for other employers to step up,” Snow said of such programs.
On the other hand, Chuck Goode, Washington County Democratic Party secretary and retired NASA software engineer, said employers are not qualified to be in the business of dispersing health care benefits and it is best left to individuals to manage their health care plans with a government-standardized monetary contribution from the employer.
“In my opinion, the employer should deliver the same set amount of cash in hand so that each employee can choose their own caregiver plans,” Goode said. “The government does a much better job of managing social programs than businesses do.”
“Employers should concentrate on making profits,” Goode said, “not on negotiating and administering employee health care plans.”
Who dictates fair wages?
Since federal guidelines mandated an increase in minimum wage to $7.25 per hour over eight years ago, Utah’s legislators have not moved to increase that amount.
But should they?
“I have filed to try to increase the minimum wage in Utah to a living wage, and I have not been successful,” Hemingway, who describes himself as a strong labor advocate, said.
Hemingway initially introduced legislation calling for an increase of the minimum wage in Utah to $15 per hour five years ago and has steadily reduced that number in subsequent legislation as the higher amounts were quickly voted down by the Republican-dominated state House and Senate.
“I keep coming down trying to get a little movement because we have people who are actually living this and they’re not able to feed their families, they’re not able to go to the doctor, they’re not able to buy their kids school clothes,” Hemingway said. “It’s wrong in the richest country in the world when we have people who are starving because they’re working for $7.25 an hour.”
Snow, Ipson and Brooks said they disagree that it is the Utah Legislature’s job to dictate how much a business must pay its employees.
“I’m not going to call them bad people, like some of the democrats that we have in the Utah House. They have good hearts,” Brooks said. “They think that if they’re going to give them $15, they’re going to be able to make a living. What they fail to see, in my opinion, is those costs to pay those employees are going to be a problem.”
Brooks argued that the people who advocates of increasing minimum wage are trying to help are going to be hurt the most as the price of everyday purchases rise.
“I use the example with my own kids. When I was a kid, I could buy a soda for 53 cents and a candy bar for 25 cents. Well, minimum wage has gone up and so is everything else that I buy,” Brooks said. “So the people escaping poverty just barely are now pushed back into it.”
Hemingway said he takes an alternate perspective to that scenario.
“I know that small business thinks, ‘You’re going to break me.’ That’s not true,” Hemingway said. “There’s going to be more money to be spent. It might look a little bleak at the beginning … but at some point, it’s going to turn around and you’re going to have more people spending more money.”
Ipson said there is a place for entry-level jobs that may offer lower but still competitive wages.
“I think competition and supply and demand have made it so employers are having to pay, even at entry level – I think for the most part – they’re paying a fair wage,” Ipson said.
Snow said preserving those jobs for unskilled workers and students is important.
“Most of us have been there,” snow said. “We take a summer working in fast food or labor … They actually become part of the education experience, I think. I would hate to see those dry up by the state or the federal government exercising arbitrary labor controls in terms of increasing the minimum wage.”
Alternatively, Snow said, the state may help families get a leg up economically with training and certification through programs targeted at unskilled heads-of-household at schools like Dixie Applied Technology College and Dixie State University.
“I think rather than trying to set arbitrary controls along with all of the fallout that occurs from that,” he said, “providing paths and opportunities for those to improve those skills and their training and thereby helping them to obtain better jobs, I think not only helps them but helps our entire state.”
“I think probably the most precious thing we have in our business today is our human capital,” Ipson said.
While debates about health care, minimum wage and other issues relating to labor are hardly resolved, one point of agreement appears prevalent: workers employed by a business should be considered that company’s most valuable asset and treated as such.
“Some companies are very good at taking care of their employees,” Engelman said, “but there are many that, I feel, look at their employees as a throwaway commodity.”
Employees are more likely to be retained through generous benefits, she said, which is better for a company’s bottom line.
“I think there are also others who are moved from a moral standpoint that it’s part of the obligation that we have to look out for the good people who work in our company,” Snow said of providing fair wages and benefits to employees.
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