SC’s federal jobless aid goes away soon. Why some say they’re still not working

“We’re not going to solve the rural, underserved communities’ growth economic development problem unless we promote entrepreneurship.”—Frank Knapp, CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce

Knapp was disappointed in McMaster’s decision to drop federal benefits because he said it sent the wrong message to entrepreneurs, specifically citing the benefits for independent contractors, self-employed and gig workers.

“It just felt the message to them, was, ‘Hey, give up on what you were doing before, go get a job in the restaurant industry. … Quit trying to be a small business person.’ That’s the message that I heard clearly, and it’s completely opposite of what we ought to be doing in this country, which is encouraging entrepreneurship,” Knapp said.

The State
June 6, 2021

By Joseph Bustos

Brett Jackson says he’s applied for more than 400 jobs since he was laid off last year when the manufacturer where he worked began seeing COVID-19 cases early in the pandemic.

The 61-year-old from Anderson worked in the nuclear industry for 35 years. He has health issues that make him more susceptible to COVID-19. He’s searched for more than a year for jobs online, to no avail, he says.

While looking for work, he’s been received unemployment assistance, which now includes a $246-a-week federal benefit for people whose state assistance has run out, plus the $300-a-week additional assistance the federal government provides because of the pandemic.

Once South Carolina cuts off extra unemployment benefits from the federal government, “it is absolutely going to bankrupt me,” Jackson said. ”I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Like Jackson, out-of-work job seekers across South Carolina say they’re struggling to find work that pays well enough and is suitable for their skill set, from a college student who once worked in stage theaters to an out-of-work electrician who needs a job that pays at least $350 after taxes, something minimum wage won’t do.

The workers have one thing in common: They say federal unemployment benefits, set to expire at the end of the month, are helping them stay afloat. At the same time, many South Carolina businesses have something in common, too: They can’t seem to find people to take the jobs they’re offering.

Employers say they’ve had fewer job candidates than before the pandemic, and many of those who apply don’t even bother to show up for interviews.

With businesses complaining they can’t find enough workers, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster decided to withdraw the state from those expanded federal unemployment benefits, ending access to programs for the roughly 103,000 unemployed workers across the state who received jobless aid as of early May.

McMaster is among those who say the federal benefits encourage recipients to stay home rather than taking an available job because they made more money being unemployed.

But unemployed workers interviewed by The State say they can’t find jobs suitable for their skill sets or find work that will pay them enough money to cover expenses. Job seekers also have to weigh finding child care, or they are caring for a loved one who can’t be exposed to COVID-19.

The federal benefits, which run through Sept. 6, include an additional $300 a week on top of state assistance for people of out work. That helps people who are gig workers, self-employed or independent contractors, people who were laid off amid the economic slowdown, and people whose traditional state assistance has run out.

One of those gig workers is 21-year-old Stephen Bell. Before the pandemic, he worked as a set and light designer for a local theater, but as an independent contractor. The job helped him pay for his education at Midlands Tech.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the economy, the productions Bell worked on went away. This year Bell has received $100 in weekly state unemployment benefits plus $300 a week from the federal government.

“My case is one thing, but there are other families that I’m almost certain who have it way worse right now, and this $300 a week is really helping them get by, and without it they have no idea what they’re going to do,” said Bell, who is transferring from Midlands Tech to the University of South Carolina this fall.

Bell, who has worked on the technical side of theaters since he was 16 years old, he doesn’t have the experience to help him land jobs he sees during his searches. A lot of open positions on job listing sites require at least one year of sales or marketing experience, or require a bachelors degree.

“While I have some marketing experience and some sales experience, I don’t have enough to get me some of these jobs to help me pay for my stuff,” Bell said.

The other positions he finds are concession stand workers, restaurant servers, cashiers — jobs that pay less than $10 an hour, he said.

But when the federal unemployment assistance ends, Bell said he thinks he will end up looking at a restaurant or camp counselor jobs to save up money for the school year, before finding a part-time job during the school year.

Bell has saved enough money to pay for three to four months of rent and utilities and other basic expenses after he loses his federal benefits. He is hoping he finds work soon enough to help him pay for college and his other expenses, especially as he transfers from Midlands Tech to USC.

“I’ll need to make more money to pay for the more expensive college, to pay for the more expensive programs, the more expensive books,” Bell said.

Bell has shied away from hospitality work, such as in the Five Points area. Living in a college town doesn’t make a job waiting tables desirable to him.

When it comes to restaurants, “if you haven’t been doing it for a while, if you haven’t been working in the service industry, you probably won’t get positions like a bartender,” he said. “That’s one thing I would love to do. It requires a lot of time to build up and get to that.”

Bell said McMaster’s decision to cut off federal unemployment benefits will hurt those who struggle to get by.

“This is not going to help the lower class by any means,” Bell said. “My first reaction was this is going to make poor people poorer.”

Jobs are available

Proponents of McMaster’s decision say more than 86,000 jobs are available around South Carolina and employers are having difficulty finding people to apply for the open positions. Many of those openings are in the hospitality and restaurant industry, an industry hit hard during the pandemic But there are also plenty of openings in health care and social assistance, retail, educational services and manufacturing, among other sectors.

“You see signs everywhere you go, hiring (or) need employees,” said Dan Ellzey, executive director of the state Department of Employment and Workforce.

McMaster has defended his decision to withdraw from the federal unemployment programs, saying obstacles are being removed to help people get back to work.

He doesn’t agree that parents are having a hard time finding child care for their children, arguing almost all of the child care centers in the state have reopened. Early in the pandemic, about half of child care centers were closed because of COVID-19.

As of mid-May, only 3% — 64 out of 2,430 — of child care centers in the state were closed, according to the Department of Social Services.

“We have a lot of child care providers out there,” McMaster said in a recent webinar hosted by the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.

He also said many people have immunity from COVID-19 after recovering from the virus or have received the vaccine, arguing it’s safe to go back to work.

“We’re building up an immeasurable amount of immunity out there,” McMaster said. “We have no threat to hospitals being overrun with patients. … It looks like the threat is much less than before.”

To help people find child care, the federal Health and Human Services Department released $39 billion across the country to to help child care businesses hire more people, cover expenses such as rent and utilities, and pay for goods and services to stay open or reopen.

The White House also highlighted federal efforts to get people to go back to work, including allowing people who find part-time work to keep their $300 supplemental benefit.

Ellzey noted South Carolina isn’t completely pulling the rug out from those receiving jobless benefits. The state unemployment benefits will remain.

He added that people are not allowed to receive unemployment benefits after they receive a suitable job offer.

To help push people to return to the workforce, DEW started a program last year allowing employers to report to DEW that they have offered work to a laid-off employee to do the same or a similar job, to allow DEW to cut off unemployment benefits.

People on unemployment are required to do two weekly job searches. DEW also matches workers with employers in every county and has started a new enhanced referral program to help people craft their resumes.

In the enhanced program, if a person doesn’t show up to a virtual meeting with DEW, they lose their benefits. Those employees also then are assigned to apply at three different jobs. Those who don’t show up to apply would lose their benefits.

DEW is looking to expand the enhanced referral program statewide and is holding virtual job fairs.

“We’re being as aggressive as we can under the law not to push somebody off unemployment, that is not our purpose at all, but to get people who to be working, back to work,” Ellzey said. “If there’s no suitable job for them, we understand, and they’ll stay on state unemployment.”

Finding suitable work

Workers, however, also have to consider whether the jobs that are available will pay them enough to cover their expenses.

David Stuard, of Lexington, is an out-of-work electrician whose workplace closed in April of last year, early in the pandemic. He receives the federal $300 a week on top of $221 from the state.

Since last July, he has looked for new work after the first iteration of federal unemployment help stopped.

When he does his job searches, he sees listings for jobs in the service industry. He’s finding it difficult to find work suitable for his skill set. He has applied for 10 to 12 jobs through DEW’s job portal where he’s uploaded his resume, but only one employer called him back, he said.

“At this point, I don’t want to be a car washer,” the 61-year-old Stuard said.

Stuard estimates he needs a job that pays $350 to $450 a week, after taxes, to help him cover his expenses.

He pays utilities, insurance for him and his 24-year-old autistic daughter, Angela Manning, who has part-time work of her own. He used the federal payments to get dental work for his daughter, make sure his car ran well, to prepare for when the assistance would go away, and to make sure his house remained in good condition.

“They say jobs are coming back, but … it’s all those fast food, car wash, $7.25 an hour jobs. But skilled labor is coming back slower,” Stuard added. “I don’t expect to be a supervisor, but does McMaster really intend that I should spend my last couple of years before retirement working for the least amount of money the law will allow?”

Stuard finally could see some light at the end of his job search tunnel. He’s trying out for an equipment maintenance job at a factory.

“I didn’t want to go flip burgers. I wanted to do something,” Stuard said. “My confidence is high.”

The pandemic also brought to a light another long-standing problem in South Carolina. The highest amount of available jobs are in populous areas or along the coast where the tourism and hospitality industries are in need of workers.

In early May, about 14% of job openings were in Charleston County, 8% were in Horry County and 4% in Beaufort County. Richland and Greenville counties each had about 13% of the state’s openings, Spartanburg County had about 6%, York County 5% and Lexington County about 4%.

At the same time, in April, the counties with the highest unemployment rates were Allendale at 8.6%, Bamberg at 8.2%, Orangeburg at 7.9% and Malboro at 7.9% — all more rural areas of the state with fewer job openings.

The issue is that more jobs are available in places with lower unemployment rates than some of those rural areas, a problem that existed in the state for many years prior to the pandemic.

“This is a decades and decades problem,” said Frank Knapp, CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not going to solve the rural, underserved communities’ growth economic development problem unless we promote entrepreneurship.”

Knapp was disappointed in McMaster’s decision to drop federal benefits because he said it sent the wrong message to entrepreneurs, specifically citing the benefits for independent contractors, self-employed and gig workers.

“It just felt the message to them, was, ‘Hey, give up on what you were doing before, go get a job in the restaurant industry. … Quit trying to be a small business person.’ That’s the message that I heard clearly, and it’s completely opposite of what we ought to be doing in this country, which is encouraging entrepreneurship,” Knapp said.

Not just restaurants

It’s not just the hospitality industry looking for workers to fill open positions.

Kay Stanley is the owner and CEO of Spartina 449, a Hilton Head Island-based business that designs and manufactures women’s apparel, handbags and jewelry and has 12 stores in the Carolinas and Georgia. She said she’s struggled to have people come in for interviews.

Stanley said her business has about 200 employees, with 20 openings both in retail and customer service.

Spartina 449, like most other stores, was forced to close because of COVID. Spartina 449 laid off about 30% of its workforce for about three months before it started to bring them back.

Now, people are shopping again.

“It’s that pent-up demand. People want to become normal again, they want to look good, they want normal clothing, so these women are coming in, and we literally don’t have enough people to help them,” Stanley said.

She said before the pandemic, job applicants always showed up, and an open position could lead to several hundred people applying, Stanley said.

Only a handful apply now.

And those who do apply don’t come in for scheduled interviews, she said. Stanley believes people apply to work only to say they applied so they can still qualify for unemployment.

Stanley said several weeks ago, the company had six interviews scheduled for one day, and only one person showed up, via video chat.

The others never gave a reason for not showing up, Stanley said.

She said she does increase wages when the business can afford it, but increasing wages leads to increasing the cost of items the business sells, raising prices for customers.

“It brings increased costs across the board; it has to come from somewhere,” Stanley said.

Applicants also aren’t coming in to Impeccable Cleaning, a Mount Pleasant business owned by Debby Moore.

Moore said her job listings have not received much interaction on, and she only has a handful of applicants. Before the pandemic, she would receive 50 to 60 applicants each time she posted an opening.

But the applicants have only trickled in. She even checked with Indeed to see if her ad placements were correct and if the wording needed to be changed. But the ads for the $15-an-hour jobs, aren’t the issue. People just aren’t clicking on her postings ad.

“People aren’t even looking, it seems like,” Moore said. “And they would make more staying home at this point with the unemployment bonus than they would working 30 hours a week, really rigorous work.”

Being down three employees from the seven she had before the pandemic, Moore has to cancel appointments with regular clients, as well as turn away new clients.

Her customer based already has dropped from 120 clients pre-pandemic to 70 clients now.

She did receive Paycheck Protection Program assistance to keep paying her employees during the early parts of the pandemic. But she had one employee leave because of child care issues, and one who left because they were caring for an older loved one.

Moore said she helped one employee pay for child care one day when the child’s school had an unexpected e-learning day.

Moore said she thinks McMaster’s decision will help increase the number of job applicants.

“I do understand there are some child care issues or there’s people caring for relatives with COVID, but I can’t explain such a significant drop in applicants from that,” Moore said.

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