Minimum wage hot topic in S.C.

Erin McKee, (from left) Ron Kaz and Carol Dotterer protest the minimum wage in December in front of a fast-food restaurant on Savannah Highway in West Ashley.

Increasing minimum wage for workers is a hot-button topic this year, with mounting talks of action by policymakers in Columbia and Washington, D.C.

In South Carolina, some Democratic lawmakers are calling for raising the minimum wage to $8.25 or even $10 an hour. That would be up from the current $7.25. An extra $1 an hour would add $2,080 to the $15,080 a year for a worker earning the federal minimum.

State Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, chief sponsor of the bills, said the rising cost of health care and payroll taxes are "coming out of paychecks of hard-working citizens."

"Why not begin to reward people for work? This $2,000 (yearly) roughly would make a tremendous difference in a household's income," he said, adding that families living on one or more minimum-wage jobs would benefit from the slight monthly boost in cash, which could help them meet transportation and other needs.

Some Republicans, however, have voiced objection to the legislation.

"It's easy to say people would be better off if we pay them more money," said state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, whip of the GOP Senate caucus, which builds party consensus. "The problem is that money has to come from somewhere. If McDonald's has to pay more ... they're either going to charge more, or they're not going to hire more people."

A better solution, Massey said, would be to provide people with "training and skills they need to get higher paying jobs, rather than forcing employers to pay higher wages for low-skilled jobs."

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, has filed a bill to raise S.C.'s minimum wage to $10. Cobb-Hunter could not be reached for comment.

Gov. Nikki Haley's office did not respond to email and phone calls seeking comment about raising the state's minimum wage.

South Carolina has no state minimum wage, so it abides by the $7.25 federal mandate, as do other Southeastern states such as Tennessee and Alabama. Efforts to raise minimum wage on the state level are playing out throughout the nation, including in Georgia, which has two bills by House Democrats.

Democrats in more than half of U.S. states are sponsoring or are expected to introduce state-level wage hike measures, according to a national review by The Associated Press.

Nearly all states in the Southeast mirror the $7.25 federal minimum wage rate with the exception of Florida, which requires employers to pay workers at least $7.93 per hour, says the Department of Labor. The nation's highest minimum rate is $9.32 in Washington.

Supporters of raising the minimum wage say it's needed to keep up with inflation.

President Barack Obama spoke about the need for Congress to increase the minimum wage level in his State of the Union address Tuesday. That was followed by hints of an executive order to increase minimum wage on new federal contract workers.

Obama hopes his order will spur Congress to increase the minimum wage for all employ-ees. Obama has said he would support legislation to raise the federal wage rate to $10 per hour. A higher minimum wage is lauded by workforce rights ad-vocates like Brett Bursey, direc- tor of the S.C. Progressive Network. Bursey said minimum wage increases are needed because "someone who works full time should not be below the poverty level."

"It's not a job killer and does-n't make it that people get laid off," he said. "That's because the numbers indicate that it is a healthy thing for your general economy."

Local business advocates such as the Charleston Metro Cham- ber of Commerce say wages shouldn't be dictated by government. "We've had a long-standing policy that we are against a mandate that sets what a rate should be," said Mary Graham, senior vice president of business advocacy at the chamber. "It should be left to market forces."

Michael DuBois, 35, was one of several last week to stop by SC Works seeking a job. So far, DuBois said he's been making ends meet with construction work. He said the state's job assistance center is helpful, but it's not enough.

"I think it's good to have pla-ces like this to give you the train- ing to have a job, and ... once you're in the actual workforce is when you need to make sure there is a decent wage," he said.

Discussions about minimum wage increases come as economists are split on the impact. Some say it could have minimal effect. Others say it could hike unemployment rates as employ- ers are forced to adapt to higher costs of doing business.

College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner said the minimum wage will be largely a "nonevent" due to many workers already earning higher than $7.25 per hour. "It is feel-good legislation and no one will argue against it but only the cruel, cold and callous people," he said. "Everyone says they want to help workers out, but if you want to help the employee out, you need more job-training programs."

Steve Slifer, Charleston-based economist and owner of NumberNomics, said some firms, especially smaller ones, will feel the pinch of added costs, which could have an impact on the unemployment rate.

"For those who are earning minimum wage, there is no doubt about that they're having a hard time to make ends meet," Slifer said.

He said some employers will have to decide how to cushion any added labor expenses. "Those like Walmart and Target, they pay a lot of minimum-wage people, so when you raise that rate, those costs have gone up." He added that salaries are poised to grow as baby boomers retire and younger workers move into higher-paying jobs.

Still, a higher minimum wage would be welcome for those like DuBois. The veteran moved to Moncks Corner to find a job and take care of his five kids.

"Minimum wage is just not enough," DuBois said. "I believe $9 an hour is a pretty fair shot as long as you're getting a solid 40 hours, and I believe people can make it off that."

Employers like Karen Elsey of Laura Alberts Tasteful Options on Daniel Island said raising minimum wage to $10 would cause major problems for many small businesses. "It may be fine for the major corporations, but it is not for the small mom-and-pop stores," she said. Elsey said her restaurant's lowest-earning worker, a dishwasher, starts at $8 and can earn more. She said setting a $10 minimum would cut into rewarding staffers for good work.

"You have to prove yourself for $10 an hour," she said.

Supporters of raising S.C. minimum wage include state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charles- ton. He said he will seek to introduce legislation next year.

"What I want to do is sit down with working groups, working-class citizens and ... business owners and see what's true in South Carolina because minimum wage is much more than about teenagers," he said. "More and more adults are working for minimum wage, and so we have to make sure government responds to the economic needs of the people." and The Associated Press contributed to this story.