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Sen. Lindsey Graham says unemployment benefits are holding Charleston economy back

Virus Outbreak Congress (copy)

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., renewed his call for an end to expanded federal unemployment benefits. File/AP

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham repeated his stance that the federal government should end extra unemployment benefits for workers out of a job because of the coronavirus pandemic, describing the benefits as a hindrance to reopening Charleston's economy. 

Workers in the region's hospitality and tourism sectors must return to work as soon as possible, Graham said Friday during a stop at the Medical University of South Carolina.

More generous benefits given to the unemployed during COVID-19 are holding back efforts to revitalize the local economy, he said. 

"I saw this coming from day one," Graham said. "If you pay someone $23 an hour not to work, they're going to take you up on it." 

Graham is advocating for an end to the additional $600 per week the federal government tacked on to every qualifying American's unemployment benefits. The extra payment is set to expire at the end of July. 

Graham spoke in Charleston where he and MUSC leadership met to discuss statewide improvements to internet. Such improvements could help medical providers like MUSC extend their virtual health care into more remote parts of the state. 

At one point during the pandemic, three-quarters of the tourism workforce was not working, according to one survey. 

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Willis Cantey, chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and CEO of Cantey Tech Consulting, said the additional unemployment benefits have "made it very difficult to bring in employees."

"We want to make sure that we get that under control," he said.

Graham, who faces three GOP challengers in the June 9 primary but is on the more likely duel path against Democratic contender Jaime Harrison in November, also acknowledged some businesses won't be able to bounce back.

The S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce has already instructed companies to report any employees who decline to return to work, if offered their jobs back. Those people are then removed from the unemployment rolls. 

Roughly 240,000 South Carolinians were still seeking jobless benefits as of May 16, a little less than half of the peak number of workers who filed a claim since mid-March. Figures released Thursday showed that nearly 25,000 sidelined workers statewide filed a new request for unemployment aid between May 17 and May 23. 

Ultimately, MUSC laid off 1,200 workers. It has been able to bring back 300 of those employees so far, MUSC Health CEO Dr. Pat Cawley said.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

Mary Katherine, who also goes by MK, is a reporter covering health care and technology for The Post and Courier's business desk. She grew up in upstate New York and enjoys playing cards, kayaking and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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