Columbia’s Tammarria Mitchell worked for a year in a fast-food job, earning the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and never getting a raise.
She enjoyed helping customers, but the pay barely was enough to cover rent and daily cab fare to and from work, leaving little for other expenses, she said.
“You barely have enough to pay for your food,” Mitchell said. “You really have nothing.”
Now in a better-paying job as an assistant in a downtown homeless shelter, Mitchell says S.C. lawmakers should pass a law raising the state’s minimum wage above the federal rate.
Two-thirds of South Carolinians agree, according to a new Winthrop Poll.
That poll question, asked from Feb. 21 to March 1 exclusively for The State, found 68 percent of South Carolinians think state lawmakers should raise the state’s minimum wage above the federally set $7.25 an hour.
South Carolina is one of 19 states where the lowest earners make the federal minimum wage, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages – the highest being in D.C. at $9.50 an hour.
Supporters of raising the state’s minimum wage say they hope the poll will convince lawmakers to join the majority of states in raising the minimum wage.
“Tax incentives, tax breaks (for businesses) – great,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, a proponent of a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. “But let's give something to the hard-working, struggling families of this state by increasing the minimum wage.”
While most South Carolinians agree the minimum wage should be higher, the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature is unlikely to support Cobb-Hunter’s bill.
“I'm not one of these people that believes we follow the leader,” said state Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, referring to the majority of states that have raised their minimum wage.
Self-described as “business-friendly,” Sandifer is chairman of a House committee that would consider any proposal to increase the minimum wage.
“What other state's might do really does not change the way I approach things,” he said.
‘Not small mom-and-pop companies’
Raising the minimum wage could increase the pay about 65,000 South Carolinians. Those include workers who make $7.25 an hour or as little as $2.13, if they also make tips.
Other workers could see a benefit as well if their wages are increased to reflect the new higher minimum wage.
In South Carolina, minimum wage workers make up a larger portion of the hourly paid workforce than nationally.
Of South Carolina’s 1.1 million hourly workers in 2013, about 5.8 percent were paid the minimum wage or less, if they also earned tips. Nationally, 4.3 percent of workers paid by the hour were paid the minimum wage.
Also, it is illegal for S.C. cities or counties to raise the minimum wage — lawmakers passed a law in 2002 banning local governments from doing so.
Sandifer, who backed that law, says government should not tell businesses what they should pay their employees.
What’s good for a larger business, may hurt a smaller one, he said.
Sandifer said businesses are deciding for themselves when to increase wages without being compelled by any law.
One example is Wal-Mart. The big-box retailer recently announced it will raise the starting pay of its employees, including those making the minimum wage, to $9 an hour in April and $10 an hour in 2016.
“You have to look at the scope of what those employers are doing as far as how many employees are impacted by it,” Sandifer said. “These are not small mom-and-pop companies. They can afford much better to raise the minimum wage of employees.”
‘State should ... take the lead’
State Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, reads Wal-Mart’s move in a different way.
“I was very excited to see Wal-Mart ... say, ‘We’re putting our money where our mouth is,’ ” said Scott.
“The business community is saying to us as legislators, ‘We have interest in increasing minimum wages. It allows us a couple of things: to promote some of our people, to give them some hope that additional money is forthcoming, and (to say) if you work a little harder you can move up in our organization.’ ”
Scott has introduced a bill that would ask S.C. voters if they want to raise the minimum wage to a dollar more than the federal rate and index that new minimum wage to inflation, meaning it would increase as other costs rise.
“The state should always take the lead,” Scott said, adding some state workers, who likely make minimum wage, also would benefit.
“Come on, get with the game! I’m looking for McDonald’s any moment” to announce they are raising wages, too, he said.
‘Very hard, but it’s a job’
Of the 29 states that have a minimum wage that is higher than the federally set $7.25 an hour, 10 tie their minimum wage to inflation.
That’s an idea James Brooks, who moved to Columbia recently, said South Carolina and other states should adopt.
Brooks, 46, says he loads chickens off a truck in the dead of night so he can earn $8.50 an hour, not the $7.25 minimum wage.
“It’s very hard, but it’s a job,” Brooks said, who thinks a higher minimum wage would encourage more “people to go to work.”
While he is happy to have his job and eager to move up in the ranks, Brooks says his low earnings now mean it will be a while before he can save up enough to get his own place to live.
“You’ve got to get your deposit, your first month’s rent; you’ve got to get your lights turned on,” he said.
Until he has the money, Brooks is living at the Transitions shelter in downtown Columbia.
Columbia’s Mitchell, who once worked in fast food, now works at Transitions. She makes enough to pay her bills and financially is where she “needs to be,” she said.
She also lived at the center for almost two years. The shelter helped her find work and gave her a place to stay while she saved up.
“I’m a success because I didn’t give up.”