At the same time the city of Charleston is working to add more affordable housing throughout the community, it wants to address another factor that's making it difficult for workers to live here: low wages. 

In next year's budget, the city is poised to raise its minimum wage from $11.50 an hour to $12, an increase that would also slightly raise what workers in higher-paid categories would earn. 

The increase isn't just for the worker's sake. At the end of this year, the city estimates it will have lost about 18 percent of its overall workforce, excluding sworn officers in the police and fire departments. That's a relatively high turnover rate when compared with other municipalities in the region.

And some of those workers are going to the other municipalities that pay better.

"We’ll never be competitive with the private market, but at least within the municipalities, we’re trying to stay somewhat competitive so we’re not losing more employees," said Chief Financial Officer Amy Wharton.

The new payment plan would put the city more in line with other local governments in the area, which have been adjusting their minimum wages over the past few years to better reflect the Lowcountry's high cost of living.

Mount Pleasant's minimum wage is already at about $12, and the pay usually goes up by about 2 percent for existing workers every year. North Charleston plans to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. Right now, it's at $13.25. 

Charleston County has the lowest wage of them all, about $10 an hour, but there are only about 16 workers in that pay grade, less than 1 percent of the county's overall workforce. 

Wharton said many of the city's lowest-paid positions, such as drivers, are offered higher wages at the county. 

"We’re losing a lot of drivers to the county," she said, which leads to staffing shortages, overworked drivers and overtime costs in the city. "It’s not fair to the employees."

Snack Bar Charleston Golf Course02.jpg

Tara Reed folds a wet towel to clean with at the City of Charleston Municipal Golf Course on Monday, November 12, 2018 on James Island. Snack bar workers are among the lowest-paid city employees, but City Council could increase the minimum wage from $11.50 to $12 an hour next year. 

'Leading the way'

The pattern of escalating housing prices in the center of the region, particularly in the city limits, is forcing people on lower incomes to move farther away to places like Summerville and Moncks Corner, where the costs are lower.

That ultimately affects the city's ability to keep lower-paid workers.

"They have longer commutes, and they’re finding jobs closer to home," Wharton said. 

The city has a few efforts in the works to increase the affordable housing stock, but officials see increasing the minimum wage as another crucial piece of the puzzle. 

"I have staff that work for me that have master’s degrees that can’t buy houses in the city of Charleston," Wharton said. "Maybe things would be more affordable if our wages reflected that more, and maybe the city should be leading the way."

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey sees it the same way.

"It’s hard for us to go out seeking new businesses and new industries that pay a good wage if we’re not setting the example," he said. 

On a social level, too, he thinks if people earn more, it makes the overall community better. 

"We have found that people who live an impoverished lifestyle, it sort of deters the quality of life in a community," he said.

Charleston is building in a wage increase to its $184 million budget this year despite a number of competing expenses because it's seen as a top priority. The cost would range from $3.1 million to $5.3 million, depending on which plan City Council chooses. 

only if need extra pic pool water quality.jpg (copy)

Lifeguard and water safety instructor Jaime Stacy cleans the sides of the Martin Luther King Jr. swimming pool this summer. Lifeguards are among the city's lowest paid workers. Wade Spees/Staff/File

If other major expenses are funded, such as a new fire station in Cainhoy, city residents could face slightly higher property taxes. The budget is still being worked on, so no decisions have been made yet.

'Not getting the compensation'

The lowest-paid workers in Charleston include lifeguards, receptionists, groundskeepers, custodians and several recreation positions, such as snack bar workers and recreation center instructors. They comprise about 11 percent of the city's workforce.

At Bees Landing Recreation Center in outer West Ashley, one of the newest and most active city-owned recreation facilities, staffing and wage issues are an ongoing challenge.

Most positions at the center are part time, which can make it difficult to retain good employees, said Sam Weatherford, the center's director. One part-time worker just left to take a full-time job at Wannamaker County Park, he said.

Plus, the wage system makes it difficult to reward the full-time employees who have worked there for a long time. For instance, Katelin Ballard, a recreation specialist, has been working at the center for eight years.

She has keys to the center and helps Weatherford run the place, but there is no other title she could earn that would put her at a higher pay grade than the other specialists. She's paid $12.87 an hour, the same rate as part-time specialist Amberle Phillips, who has been at the center for half as many years.

"She's expected to do more, she's expected to manage other employees, and she's not getting the compensation for that," Phillips said.

The city's proposed pay plan might offer both of them more money, but it wouldn't address the experience gap. 

Ballard is expecting her third child, and while she feels like her income combined with her husband's is enough to live on, she sometimes worries if she'd be able to support the family if anything were to happen to him.

And at some point, she said it might not make financial sense to shoulder the cost of commuting back and forth to her home in Summerville 22 miles away every day, especially if she doesn't see much wage growth. 

She'd hate to leave the center, though.

"I love what I do. I don't know that I could get the same satisfaction out of another job somewhere else," she said. 

If it weren't for her commitment to the job, Weatherford said it'd be "impossible" to find someone else like her.

The new pay plan and other proposed expenses will be discussed at the next City Council budget workshop at 9 a.m. Thursday in City Hall, 80 Broad St. 

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.