Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Raise the Wage

 It’s time to set a $15 minimum wage in South Carolina. Baby steps and half-measures are far behind us, squandered by years of inaction by our lawmakers who have waited too long to raise wages of the state’s poorest workers.

Last month, more than 60% of Florida voters approved a referendum to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026.

No, it was not some Marxist plot to abolish the rich or raid the piggy banks of wealthy Floridians. Those same voters also carried the Sunshine State for Donald Trump. It was a loud-and-clear affirmation by Republican and Democratic voters that wages have been far too suppressed and out-of-whack for far too long.

South Carolina’s economy relies even more on hourly workers than Florida’s to support its multi-billion dollar tourism industry. South Carolina’s hourly workforce is less than one-quarter the size of Florida’s, but it has nearly 80% of Florida’s total number of minimum wage workers, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In fact, South Carolina’s hourly workforce had the largest share of minimum wage workers in the nation in 2019 — roughly 61,000. Many of those workers are employed in restaurants or bars where their hourly pay can be less than minimum wage if they make up the difference in tips.

Combine that with the fact that Florida’s $8.56 minimum wage is higher than the $7.25 federal minimum, and South Carolina’s shameful neglect stacks even higher. 

Even more shameful: South Carolina and four other states don’t actually have a state-set minimum wage.  

That means businesses fall back on the rock-bottom federal wage. The result: A full-time minimum-wage worker in South Carolina would be paid a little over $15,000 per year.

Before COVID-19, South Carolina enjoyed one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates. So, yes, the jobs are there in a stable economy. But with wages for the state’s poorest stuck at the bottom of the pay scale, it’s no surprise census data show the South Carolina poverty rate remains near 14%. Worse: 23% of South Carolina children are living in poverty, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The paltry federal minimum wage doesn’t come close to covering the cost of living in a place like Charleston, where a living wage is said to be more than $24 per hour, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

S.C. business advocates have pushed back against minimum wage increases in the past, saying that they will hurt employers. But support among South Carolina workers for raising the minimum wage has been strong for years. Two-thirds of those responding to a Winthrop Poll supported an increase as far back as 2015.

With thousands of South Carolina workers earning just $7.25 per hour or less, and as the state’s bustling tourism economy rebounds over the next year, it’s time for state legislators to take up serious proposals to set a real, livable minimum wage at $15 per hour.