As South Carolina lurches from a global pandemic into a summer in which more entertainment and leisure venues are once again open for people to enjoy, state leaders are pushing residents back to work.
During a visit to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette told local business leaders that the state government was focused on ensuring state residents “get back to work” now that the COVID-19 pandemic is winding down, the Grand Strand’s summer tourist season is ramping up and the state is set to end some benefits for the unemployed next week.
“We are being as proactive as we can to get people back to work and if they’re not willing to go back to work then we’re not willing to pay them,” Evette told the local chamber’s board of directors. “The governor has taken a very heavy hand on this: Everyone’s got to get back to work. We’ve got to get our businesses running so we’re continuing to do that.”
Evette’s comments come as some Grand Strand businesses have said they’ve struggled to find enough employees to operate at full capacity. Some restaurant owners, for example, have told The Sun News that they can’t seat customers at all of their available tables because they don’t have enough waitstaff to serve those customers.
In response to that problem, Evette said, she and Gov. Henry McMaster are aiming the power of the state government at ensuring people who are able to work apply for, interview for and accept jobs across the state. To that end, Evette said, the McMaster administration has told the Biden administration that South Carolina would no longer accept additional federal unemployment benefits, which amount to an extra $300 a week on top of state assistance, despite the federal programs continuing until Sept. 6 under the American Rescue Plan.
In addition, Evette said, the state Department of Employment and Workforce started a program that would cut off residents from state unemployment benefits if the agency matches them with a job they refuse to interview for or accept if offered. She said the lack of workers has been caused by additional unemployment benefits in which people have been “getting extra money to stay home.”
“DEW has a program right now where if you go to them and say, ‘I can’t get anyone to come in for an interview’ they work with you, they will get a list of job qualifications, they will search their database and they will send you applicants and if they don’t show up, or if you offer them a job that they don’t take, they will cut your benefits immediately,” Evette explained to area business leaders.
Taken together, Evette’s comments send a clear message that residents across Horry County and South Carolina have few options left if COVID-19 has affected their employment.
DEW reported this week that South Carolina’s unemployment rate fell to 4.6% in May, and Dan Ellzey, the executive director of the agency, said the state has more than 80,000 jobs available to people who are currently receiving unemployment benefits.
Not included in Evette’s message on Wednesday, though, was a call for businesses to pay workers more to lure them back into the workforce. Asked about that, Evette said that she believes wage increases “will organically happen” if South Carolina pushes to help businesses and boost the state economy.
“Businesses have to thrive in order to pay those wages, so we focus on businesses,” Evette said. “Businesses can only pay what they take in so by us pushing the economy forward, by us making sure that we create strong businesses, that does go to the employee. If we keep them thriving, if we keep tourism coming, if we get people out working, the more they make the more employees make, and that’s what we have to focus on.”
She said she’s seen examples of that happening already, as some fast food restaurants in Greenville offer incentives or higher wages to attract workers.
Some experts, however, have told The Sun News that the worker shortages some businesses are experiencing aren’t solely caused by workers receiving increased unemployment benefits. Rather, workers are staying out of the workforce for a number of reasons, including not finding work that is suitable for their skill set or qualifications, having trouble finding child care, needing to care for an older loved one who can’t be exposed to COVID-19, or are fearful of getting sick.
Across the country, South Carolina has one of the lowest rates of vaccinations at 37% with only 10 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands lagging behind. Across Horry County, though cases and deaths have fallen dramatically from last year’s highs, some people are still contracting and dying from COVID-19. And South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control warned Wednesday about the more-infectious Delta variant of COVID-19, which has begun spreading more widely across the country.
“The pandemic still exists. I think there are people that are still afraid of working in close quarters in something like a restaurant,” Laura Ullrich, an economist with the Federal Reserve told The Sun News in April. “It’s not one thing. I don’t think it’s just the virus itself. I don’t think it’s just the unemployment (benefits). I think it’s a whole host of factors that are kind of interwoven together.”
Evette said Wednesday that DEW and the state’s technical college system are partnering to provide short-term retraining programs to those receiving unemployment benefits.
Parents, too, Evette said, should teach their children that they don’t necessarily need a four-year college degree to become successful in the workforce. Rather, a certificate or degree from a training program or technical college can set people up for successful careers, she said. She cited work in the HVAC field as an example.
Evette also encouraged parents to allow their teenage children to work minimum wage jobs as a way to gain “soft skills” such as punctuality, how to have professional telephone conversations and more.
Ultimately, she said, the state’s push to bolster its workforce is about maintaining a healthy economy across South Carolina.
“What we want is a very productive workforce, a workforce that helps not just business but helps the employees themselves,” Evette said. “So we’re doing everything we can to make sure that happens.”
The State’s Joe Bustos contributed to this report.