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2020 Democratic race renews focus on $15 minimum wage in South Carolina

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Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum

South Carolina is one of five states in the country without a state minimum wage, even as most have adopted rates higher than the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum. Some workers in the state are getting the attention of Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential race as they demand a $15 minimum wage, pushing the issue to forefront of the race. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The reality of surviving on $8.75 an hour starts in the early morning hours of Taiwanna Milligan's Orangeburg County home.

It's the 4 a.m. alarm going off followed by the 6 a.m. carpool she takes to her job at a McDonald's in Charleston. Though she recently had to move, Milligan could not afford to lose her job — even if it's more than an hour's drive away.

In between, and especially during her shifts at work, there's the back-of-her-mind worry about pink slips, electric bills and, most of all, the medical expenses for her 12-year-old son who has a chronic blood disease.

Milligan makes $1.50 more than the $7.25 federal minimum wage, but she argues it isn't enough.

"If they would raise the minimum wage, I could feed my child and myself," she said. "I could pay for his medicine and get the proper medical attention for myself, also."

"But the way things are going right now, I can’t afford it," said Milligan, a 42-year-old single mother.

Milligan doesn't just dream of a better life. She's demanding it. Already, three Democratic presidential candidates have listened to her during their stumps through the state. 

When she joined the grassroots "Fight for $15 and a Union" campaign last month as an activist, she shared her story as a low-wage worker with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke. 

She asked all of them the same question: "What are y'all going to do to make things happen for us?"

One-third of SC workers affected

South Carolina is one of five states in the country without a state minimum wage, even as most have adopted rates higher than the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum.

Research shows about 684,000 South Carolina workers — or a third of the state's workforce — would see their wages increase if a $15 federal minimum wage were adopted by 2025, according to David Cooper, a senior economic analyst at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute.

But, for every action, there is a reaction. The Congressional Budget Office warns that any incremental federal minimum wage increase comes with its share of risks. Its cost analysis found the move could result in a median estimated loss of 1.3 million jobs and a high estimated loss of 3.7 million jobs.

The federal minimum wage has not changed since 2009, making it the longest stretch it has ever gone without a boost since it first took effect in 1938. 

The Fight for $15 and a Union movement got its start in 2012 when hundreds of fast-food workers in New York City went on strike to demand a $15 minimum wage and union rights. Today, the effort has spread to more than 300 cities.

Buoyed by the 2020 presidential cycle, the movement has renewed its focus in key early primary states, including South Carolina. Evidence of this is in a job posting for an early primary S.C. canvasser that promised to pay $15 an hour with the appeal "Do you want to make a difference working for economic and social justice?"

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Another job ad sought an early primary state digital organizer. The contract ends in February 2020 — the same month as the South Carolina's Democratic presidential primary.

Milligan is not a paid staffer on the campaign but has participated in protests when it doesn't conflict with her work schedule.

One of the national figures in the Fight for $15 group is South Carolina native Terrence Wise. Wise, 39, now works at a McDonald's in Kansas City, Mo., but he grew in up the Hendley Homes housing complex, one of Columbia's oldest public housing projects. He drew on that experience when he urged Congress in February to raise the federal minimum wage.

That press will continue during the course of the South Carolina primary, he said.

"We'll keep pushing candidates on specific plans for how they’ll make it easier for McDonald’s workers and workers everywhere to join unions, because we know it’s the best way to lift up families and communities all over this nation," he said.

"What’s more, workers like me are voting," Wise added. "We’re a powerful voting bloc and we’ll be taking that power to the ballot box."

A political litmus test

The minimum wage debate has become a political litmus test for the Democratic presidential candidates.

Some 20 of the 24 candidates support a $15 federal minimum wage, including the race's front-runners: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Buttigieg.

The outliers on this issue are Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who advocates for a $12 minimum wage, and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is pitching the idea of a universal basic income where Americans are paid $1,000 a month.

Their views are different from the current White House occupant. When he was running for president in 2016, Donald Trump told voters in Florida the minimum wage needed to be at least $10, but ultimately said states should decide. This month, the White House said Trump would veto the "Raise the Wage Act" if it makes it to his desk. The bill passed by the House this month would raise the minimum to $15 an hour by 2025.

Back home in Orangeburg County, Milligan said she's committed to getting in front of as many presidential candidates as possible about this issue — both Democrats and Republicans. 

As a black woman, Milligan is a sought-after voter in South Carolina, where African Americans make up better than 60 percent of the turnout in the Democratic primary. According to a survey from the Black Economic Alliance, 72 percent of African Americans said increasing the federal minimum wage would help a great deal in improving work conditions for the black community.

She has not decided who she will vote for.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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