On April 29, at a meeting of Gov. Henry McMaster’s Accelerate SC task force of business leaders, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott reiterated their opposition to the $600 per week federal unemployment benefit the CARES Act provides people laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Graham declared, “I promise you over our dead bodies will the this get reauthorized. We’ve got to stop this.” Scott did not dissent.
This shows, once again, that our two U.S. senators are less concerned with the real needs of South Carolina’s workers than they are with the irrational fear that working people will receive so much money that they will prefer to stay home rather than return to work. In fact, Graham and Scott are badly out of touch with the circumstances of the state’s working people.
During the six-week period ending April 25, more than 400,000 South Carolinians, roughly 17 percent of the state’s entire labor force, made initial applications for unemployment benefits. Unemployment in the state is at a record level. Our inadequate system of employer-provided health insurance means that many of those unemployed have lost access to health insurance coverage at a time when the most economically marginalized people are at greatest risk in the pandemic. By the time the CARES Act passed and payments were authorized, many had already fallen behind on rent or mortgages, utilities and other expenses. In March, fewer than one-third of South Carolinians received the unemployment checks they were eligible for, according to the Pew Research Center. For many, it is by no means certain when, or even if, they will be able to return to work. It is clear that the coronavirus pandemic and its effects will be with us for some time, and it is not at all certain what the new normal will be for South Carolinians or anyone else.
Instead of considering those realities, Graham yet again resorted to an abstract claim that, “If you offer [people] $23 an hour not to work, they’ll probably take that over $17 to go to work.” His thinking reflects only the perspective of employers who want to offer wages as low as possible. He does not consider the needs of the state’s working people, especially low-wage workers, who make less than a living wage. His own example is telling. An estimate by Open Data Nation determined that a living wage for a family of one adult and one child in South Carolina would be $23.16 per hour, a few pennies over the figure Graham considers excessive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May of last year the median hourly wage for all South Carolina workers was $16.68 – less than Graham’s hypothetical $17.
Our senators seem so blinded by ideology that they fail to recognize that putting money in unemployed South Carolinians’ pockets does not just help them and their families, but is good for the entire state. Ensuring economic security for all South Carolinians is one of the most important tools at our disposal to weather the pandemic. The last thing our state needs now is for families to face foreclosures and evictions, to fear utility shut-offs, to skimp on food and forego medicines and treatments. Everyone paying rent and buying groceries and other necessities will help to keep the state’s economy going until it is safe for us to reopen responsibly. This is vital for low-wage workers in the hospitality and restaurant industries in particular, as they are likely to be among the most vulnerable for serious complications from infection and to have the most direct contact with others.
We also know that there are dangerous, anti-worker interests at work, like Americans for Prosperity, trying to force state governments into re-opening prematurely. These are groups that never have had any concern for American workers and have made clear time and again that they would sacrifice us all for their profits. Considering what is unknown about the coronavirus, premature reopening could have devastating consequences, especially among the most vulnerable population. We must urge Graham, Scott, McMaster and all our elected officials not to succumb to pressure from those would-be profiteers or to place their interests before those of South Carolina’s working people.
It is striking as well that McMaster’s Accelerate SC task force has at least 15 current and former CEOs and corporate executives among its 30 members and not one voice from organized labor. As president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, I strongly urge that the governor appoint to the task force at least one representative from organized labor, nominated by the state federation, the only institutional voice of South Carolina’s working people.
As to Graham and Scott, the apparent lack of regard they have repeatedly expressed for the needs and concerns of the working people who elected them carries a lesson for us all. We must pay attention to what our elected officials do once we elect them, and we should remember that when we go back to the polls. And we should keep their performance in mind this November and again in 2022.
Charles Brave, Jr. is the president of South Carolina AFL-CIO.