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In several states and cities, such as Jersey City, N.J., public school teachers have organized to push for improved pay. South Carolina teachers and employees are holding a mobilization news conference Saturday, but no walkout is expected. File/Julio Cortez/AP

Julio Cortez

COLUMBIA — State employees and teachers will call on South Carolina's leaders Saturday to boost their salaries or face a growing workforce crisis.

But they're not threatening to strike. 

The gathering at the Statehouse is intended to empower workers to fight for themselves and get legislators' attention. The event, dubbed a "mobilization," comes three days after an estimated 19,000 teachers marched in North Carolina's capital, forcing dozens of school districts to cancel classes for the day.   

Don't expect that to happen in South Carolina, a right-to-work state that's one of the nation's least unionized. Public employees can't collectively bargain for wages in South Carolina, though advocacy groups lobby for them at the Statehouse. 

But unlike other states without collective bargaining where workers won pay raises this year, including West Virginia and Oklahoma, advocates in South Carolina aren't organizing, supporting or even suggesting that employees walk off the job to make their point.

The wave began with a nine-day strike in West Virginia, which resulted in a 5 percent pay increase for all state employees and bolstered employee groups elsewhere. 

Those successful efforts have inspired teachers in a state where their salaries average less than $52,000, said Bernadette Hampton, president of the South Carolina Education Association, which is co-organizing the event with the State Employees Association. 

The numbers are worse for teachers heading into the classroom from college. South Carolina's average starting pay for teachers is third-worst nationwide at $33,057 a year, according to the National Education Association. The state requires districts to pay first-year teachers at least $30,113, but more prosperous districts offer more, making it even tougher for poor, rural districts to hire and keep teachers.

Legislators are considering giving teachers a 1 percent or 2 percent cost-of-living increase for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and boosting the minimum starting pay to $32,000 in an effort to address teacher shortages.

Hampton said that's not nearly enough.

"With the shortage crisis we're facing now, we need to consider reasons why and seek out ways to address it to attract more young people," said Hampton, whose group is affiliated with the national teachers union.

But she wouldn't even discuss the possibility of ever endorsing a walkout in South Carolina.   

"Instead of walking out of state agencies and classrooms, we're walking into our leaders and saying there is a problem, and the General Assembly has to address it," said Carlton Washington, director of the State Employees Association. "Otherwise, things will get much, much worse." 

Washington has been arguing for higher wages for years, noting many agencies' workforces still haven't been restored to pre-Great Recession levels. In 2015, legislators put $300,000 in the budget to study employee pay, promising to act on the findings.  

Instead, legislators shelved the report. Released in 2016, it showed state employees are underpaid compared to public workers in other states and even to their counterparts in South Carolina's cities and counties, while they pay more for their health and pension benefits. That year was the last time legislators approved a cost-of-living raise across state government, of 3.25 percent. That excluded teachers, whose pay is funded separately in the state budget.  

"There is a crisis in education and state government," Washington said. 

The Palmetto State Teachers Association, the state's largest teacher advocacy group, is seeking additional changes beyond higher pay, such as less paperwork requirements and less student testing.

"It's not all about pay. It's also working conditions," said director Kathy Maness. "Teachers need the time to do what they're trained and love to do, and that's teach these children." 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.