Where's the balance?
I’ve been known to start some pretty tough conversations. Today was no different. We’re back in session this week to vote on a budget that includes step increases for SC teachers, hazard pay for essential state employees, and critical CARES ACT funding that could make all the difference for South Carolinians who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. Many have lost their income and now worry about how they’ll be able to cover their family’s basic needs and living expenses. Many were struggling to make ends meet before COVID-19…often juggling multiple jobs with chronic health conditions and no health insurance or savings to cushion the blow. Terrified about what a COVID-19 exposure could mean for them or a close family member, they’re forced back into the workplace without any additional assurances, protections or pay. Some are single parents like I am or have a pre-existing health condition like I do. And while the General Assembly appropriates almost a billion dollars of CARES ACT funding to the Unemployment Trust Fund to ensure SC employers won’t have to pay higher unemployment taxes in the future, those who are unemployed across SC are pleading with us to give them the help they need and deserve…now. Where’s the balance? As a small business owner, I’m all for protecting SC businesses. But we shouldn’t balance the Unemployment Trust Fund on the backs of hard-working employees. They deserve our protection too…especially during a global pandemic when unemployment is at an all-time high. Who says we can’t be pro-business and pro-people? The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Believe it or not, some unemployed citizens receive as little as $42/week in unemployment benefits. Others who earn $34,000/year or more qualify for a weekly unemployment benefit amount of $326. And since that’s the maximum weekly benefit amount (WBA) SC allows, even if they earn $50,000/year or higher, they’d still only receive $326/week. That’s $1,304/month before taxes. Could you pay your rent or mortgage and feed your family with that? Probably not. That’s why I introduced two bills today that are the first steps toward a more balanced approach. One proposes an increase to South Carolina’s unemployment “Weekly Benefit Amount.” The other requires SC employers to implement certain COVID-19 safety standards and PPE for employees.
State lawmakers haven’t increased South Carolina’s WBA in over a decade. The additional $600 weekly pandemic unemployment assistance that Congress passed ended in July. People across SC called to complain about the SC Department of Employment & Workforce (SCDEW). Senator Lindsey Graham canvassed the state to rail against the $600 weekly benefit. Meanwhile, he continued to enjoy a six-figure congressional salary with full healthcare benefits, pension and perks. Whether you earn an hourly wage or modest salary, losing your job during or beyond this pandemic shouldn’t prevent you from covering your family’s basic needs. SC lawmakers moved pretty quickly to appropriate practically $1,000,000,000 (yes, $1 billion) to the Unemployment Trust Fund, but those who remain unemployed continue to struggle as our Governor, lawmakers and SCDEW “slow-walk” the $300 weekly unemployment benefit through FEMA. Neighboring states like NC and GA are already paying their benefits. What’s taking SC so long? Sadly, those who receive $100 or less in weekly unemployment benefits get nothing. The very people who need that $300 most don’t even qualify for it. Protecting SC employers from future unemployment tax increases while ignoring the present plight of the people who work hard to keep these businesses and the economy afloat is a gross imbalance that lawmakers must address. Recently, I received a thoughtful email from a gentleman in Edisto who wrote, “This is outrageous in a state where people are underpaid, too many lack health insurance and the schools are inferior. We buffer the business sector from events that may happen (in the future) while deaths from COVID-19 will happen as sure as the sun will shine tomorrow.” I totally agree. If SC really CARES, we must ACT by providing equitable pay, protections and much-needed balance for the hard-working people of South Carolina.