COLUMBIA — Proposals to raise the minimum wage in South Carolina and repeal an anti-union law have virtually no chance of passing in the Republican-dominated Legislature, but Democrats hope to spark a debate as the nation’s attention turns to the first-in-the-South primary state.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who sponsored both bills, said it’s time to discuss living wages in a state that ranks 46th in child poverty, 48th in per capita income and last in union membership.
“We keep hearing all these glowing numbers about how great things are,” she said of jobs touted by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley. “Yet we get reports that show we’re ranking in the bottom. ... I don’t see why we can’t at least start talking about the reality of what it means to work in South Carolina on one hand and still be eligible for assistance on the other.”
Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, held a news conference on the bills last week after a House panel officially adjourned debate on both. A second hearing is not expected.
One bill would set the state’s minimum wage at $10.10 an hour. South Carolina is among 21 states where employers can pay as low as $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum since 2009.
Proponents call $10.10 a start. That’s the minimal pay for federal contractors, as per President Barack Obama’s 2014 executive order.
“We’ll continue to fight for $15” an hour, said Rachel Nelson of Charleston, who makes $9 an hour at Hardee’s after 10 years as a fast food worker.
The mother of three children, ages 8 to 12, told the House panel she’d like to get off of public assistance, but her paychecks make it impossible.
“With my last check, I was only able to pay my light bill,” Nelson said. “Trying to keep a roof over our heads is a constant stresser in my life.”
More than 2,600 state employees make less than $10.10 an hour, or about 4 percent of the state-paid workforce. Just over half of those employees are considered temporary, according to the Department of Administration. It noted the numbers could be higher since public colleges aren’t required to send the agency data on temporary workers.
Rep. Todd Atwater, who sits on the subcommittee, contends raising the minimum wage is bad for the economy because it increases products’ cost and eliminates entry-level jobs often filled by high school and college students.
“It hurts the workers they’re trying to help,” said Atwater, R-Lexington.
The answer, he said, is better training, so students graduate from school with skills that enable them to get a higher-paying job.
Cobb-Hunter’s other bill would repeal the state’s right-to-work law.
About half of states have such laws, which means unions can’t force employees across an entire worksite to pay membership dues as a condition of employment.
Haley, who frequently lambasts unions, considers the state’s low union membership an economic development tool.
About 41,000 people — or just 2.1 percent of South Carolina’s workers — belong to unions, leapfrogging North Carolina in 2015 to rank last nationwide, according to a January report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Seth Holzopfel, with the International Association of Firefighters in Myrtle Beach, said the law should be renamed the “right to work for less “ — contending it’s made South Carolina a virtual sweatshop — or “right to freeload,” as it allows people in a union-covered job to receive benefits without paying dues.
As expected, the state’s Chamber of Commerce adamantly opposes the proposal.
Mikee Johnson, president of Cox Industries, said it would halt the state’s economic momentum.
“We’ve got to have the jobs before we get the wages. This is one of those things that would stop companies from coming to South Carolina,” he said, adding that none of his 500 workers make less than $10 an hour. “South Carolina workers do not need fewer choices when it comes to how they work every day or added costs forced upon them.”