Politics & Government

SC lawmakers angle to get state employees a big pay raise

‘Education is the key’: SC teachers and state workers rally at State House

SC teachers and state workers gathered at the State House in Columbia, SC for the South Carolinians Deserve the Best rally, advocating for higher pay and more support from state lawmakers.
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SC teachers and state workers gathered at the State House in Columbia, SC for the South Carolinians Deserve the Best rally, advocating for higher pay and more support from state lawmakers.

South Carolina state employees could be in line for a big pay increase if some lawmakers have their way.

Three state senators — two Republicans and a Democrat — want to give state workers a 5 percent pay hike in next year’s state budget. That increase could cost the state $85 million for 32,000 of its employees.

The proposal will be added to the state’s 2019-20 budget as a proviso from state Sens. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland; Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry; and Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, the senators said Monday.

“The last couple years, state employees haven’t had any cost-of-living increase,” Jackson said. “My intent is to remind our colleagues that when the revenues are there, we have to do right by our state employees.”

State employees last received a pay increase — 3.25 percent — in 2015. State workers’ pay is low compared to regional standards, restricting the state’s ability to fill vacancies, said Carlton Washington, head of the S.C. State Employees Association.

A 2015 study found state workers’ pay lagged behind their counterparts in neighboring states by 15 percent; behind city- and county-level employees by 16 percent; and behind comparable private-sector jobs by 18 percent.

That pay gap has helped fuel worker shortages in everything from prison guards to case workers at the Department of Social Services, advocates say. Washington says some 5,000 state employees have left their positions in the past year, and about 8,000 positions currently are vacant.

“We spend the money to train people, and then they leave to go to work for the city or county,” Cromer said. “We’ve got to get competitive.”

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Lawmakers are hoping to use part of about $1 billion in added money that the state will have next year to pay for the raises. But others will be trying to claim some of that money, too — for causes ranging from replacing the state’s outdated voting machines to repairing damage from this fall’s hurricanes.

Jackson said he is looking for a recurring source of money to cover the cost of the pay raise, whether it comes from new revenue from online sales taxes or a new tax on lottery sales.

“Once you give someone a raise, you can’t take it back,” Shealy said.

The proposal also could hit a snag on who is covered by the increase.

The state’s 50,000 public school teachers, who are not part of the proposal, also want a pay increase, which would cost almost $155 million. Cromer and Shealy both said they expect to offer teachers a pay raise as well.

Also, not covered in the pay-raise proposal are another 15,000 “unclassified” state workers who aren’t covered by the state’s standard pay and benefits scale, including state agency directors or tenured college professors.

But Democrat Jackson thinks the proposal has a chance to pass because it has bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Sooner or later, lawmakers will hear from voters if they can’t maintain a quality state workforce, he said.

“Where you see and hear it is when your constituents go to these agencies and you don’t have people who want to be there — they just have no choice,” he said.

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Bristow Marchant covers politics and government for The State, with more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.


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