By Lindsay Street, contributing reporter | One of the state’s top employers isn’t paying most of its workforce enough to meet a secure living standard, and more than one in ten of its employees have said they have used public assistance to support their families, according to two recent studies.
That employer is the State of South Carolina, , which employs more than 32,000 people in jobs that range from custodial services to healthcare.
And while Palmetto state headlines lately have focused on the state’s ailing pension system and crumbling highway infrastructure, the real need for adequate compensation for state workers could be gaining bipartisan traction — even if an exact pathway forward has not been identified.
Orangeburg Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said better employee pay may be making headway, thanks to state employees.
“I’m seeing more advocacy among state employees toward their legislators, that is what is different and what will make this happen. The squeaky wheel will get the grease and state employees are starting to squeak and starting to squeak to someone who can do something about it,” she said in a telephone interview with Statehouse Report.
In 2016, state employees received a cost-of-living increase of 3.25 percent on the heels of a state-commissioned study that showed they were paid 15 percent to 18 percent less than other public sector and private sector employees in comparable jobs. It was the third, across-the-board pay increase for state employees since 2008. State employees saw a 3 percent bump in 2012 and a 2 percent bump in 2014, in addition to bonuses and other more targeted pay increases for specific departments.
But in a second 2016 report, the majority of South Carolina state employees that responded to a survey said they would not recommend working for the state to a friend or family member. The study also found:
- 81.6 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement they were satisfied with their current salary;
- 13.3 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they received public assistance to support their family; and,
- 58.6 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they worked a second job to supplement their income.
The state’s employee advocacy agency, the S.C. State Employees Association (SCSEA), commissioned the survey.
In an October story for The State newspaper, House budget-writing chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said a wage hike was unlikely in the 2017 session, citing Hurricane Matthew and other expenses faced by the state. White did not return calls for this story.
But both his Republican colleague on the Ways and Means Committee, GOP Rep. Bill Herbkersman of Bluffton and the committee’s vice chair, Cobb-Hunter, said they are working with SCSEA on righting state employee wages.
SCSEA Executive Director Carlton Washington said bringing state employee pay up to a secure standard should be a high priority for lawmakers — even if it isn’t a politically “sexy” topic.
“It’s irresponsible,” he said in an interview. “Taxpayers are thinking they are paying for a service, which is good government, [by] state employees who are capable and competent and professional to provide critical services and what you have is a group of employees who are very unhappy. “We are failing the citizens of South Carolina because we won’t pay folks a competitive wage.”
A living wage?
S.C. Department of Administration reported 75 percent of state employees (about 20,000 people) make less than $39,692. That number was backed up in the SCSEA survey. According to multiple living-wage calculators, including Economic Institute Policy’s Family Budget Calculator, a family in Columbia’s metropolitan area needs a salary of $43,694 to meet a secure living standard that pays for the bare minimum of expenses.
Statewide, a single parent with one child must make $42,606 annually and two working parents with two children must make $54,921 each annually to afford basic necessities like housing and childcare, according to the MIT Living Wage calculator.
According to the U.S. Census, $45,483 is the median household income in South Carolina.
Washington painted a dire picture of the cost of high turnover and employees trying to make ends meet, either by working a second job or receiving public assistance.
“Services are going to fail,” Washington said. “And we’re not telling the taxpayers there’s a problem.”
A bipartisan bill is in the works in the House, but it’s unclear what that bill will look like. Even those working on the bill don’t seem to agree on all the points.
“We just can’t seem to agree on how we should do it,” Herbkersman said.
He said he wants two things: an additional study looking at redundant or needed positions and incentivized pay. Washington wants across-the-board raises, in addition to “plugging the pension hole” that he said adds an additional burden on underpaid employees.
According to Washington, for every 1 percent increase to employee salary, the state will spend about $17 million. He said an annual cost-of-living increase “plus a little more” over consecutive years could bring employee wages up to an adequate level.
Herbkersman said some people are paid inadequately and some people overpaid, and an additional study will be needed to figure out a course of action.
“That’s the problem we have with across-the-board raises,” he said, adding that those types of raises were only seen in government. “I’ve been very big on incentive raises.”
He also said he wanted to explore eliminating more positions in government — something Washington has pushed against, citing 10,000 state jobs lost since 1995, which shoved additional duties among a shrinking group of employees serving a state population that’s grown by a million people since 2000.
“We have to go department by department and see what we can get the work done for and the best way to do it,” Herbkersman said.
Ultimately, any solution might come in the form of multiple solutions.
“It’s handled piecemeal because it would be an enormous task to do what we’re talking about, to dissect the employee rate and fairness, and it would be an enormous amount of money,” Herbkersman said.
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