By Rep. Anton J. Gunn
On Tuesday, I was invited by Gov. Mark Sanford to attend a roundtable meeting with business leaders, employment experts, policymakers and politicians to look deeper into the unemployment crisis facing our state. I was surprised to see only a handful of lawmakers from the House and Senate at the meeting. It seems to me that this issue is too important to the people of our state for only a handful — less than 25 of the 170 members in the General Assembly — to attend the meeting. We have to do better.
Nevertheless, I gained a great deal more information about the crisis at the meeting. The problems of the unemployed in our state are much bigger than just helping people find a job. It also involves taxes on businesses, workforce development, agency coordination, personal responsibility and eliminating political infighting. The crisis of the unemployed in our state did not just happen overnight. It is a culmination of an outdated and underfunded insurance system, vague information from employers and workers, lack of coordination between multiple state agencies and most importantly inefficient and ineffective leadership that fell asleep at the wheel (including the General Assembly, Governor’s Office and the leadership at the Employment Security Commission). Yes, this problem grew over a period of years and most of our state’s leaders had no knowledge or willingness to do anything to address the crisis that was looming. To me it seems as if we knew we were on the Titanic and that there was an Iceberg in the water but we didn’t do anything to avoid hitting it. Now we (and the whole nation) see that once again South Carolina has dropped the ball.
If you don’t believe that we have dropped the ball, here are a few stats that I found interesting from the meeting:
* 25% of people that file Unemployment Claims in SC, our state doesn’t have any information on their educational level. How can we help people find jobs if we don’t know their education level?
* 22.8% of the claims from Jan 2006 – June 2009 were for misconduct. 56% of those claims received pay. What was the misconduct? No one could tell us a definitive answer but we heard misconduct was mostly thefts and drug use.
* 17.6 percent of claims were filed by employers. Which means some companies are laying off workers and helping them to file unemployment and then calling it as vacation leave time or “Unemployment Insurance Holiday” but they never really separated from the workers and they hire them right back. Why would they do this? See the next three bullets below.
* SC is only 1 of 9 states that still allows employers to filed claims for workers.
* 3% of companies account for 30% of benefits charged yet pay only 8% of contributions into the system.
* SC also is only 1 of 6 states (soon only 1 of 4) that still uses the Federal Minimum Wage Base of $7,000 to collect unemployment payments. The national average is $14,302 and the national range is from $7,000 to $35,700.
* SC has the 11th-highest Exhaustion Rate (meaning, we aren’t helping people to find jobs fast enough before their benefits run out).
Now that we have all of this background information we must move forward and figure out how to fix this situation and the current crisis that has just caused some 30,000 unemployed South Carolinians to lose their unemployment benefits even though they have not found gainful employment. Well, there is some good news and some not-so-good news. The good news is the South Carolina House of Representatives will be returning to Columbia on Tuesday, October 29th to address the issue facing unemployed workers. It also seems there is a willingness by most General Assembly members to support a change in our laws that would allow South Carolina to draw down more federal recovery dollars to provide “extended unemployment benefits” to those 30,000 workers who were just cut off of unemployment benefits. So to all of those workers who are now out of benefits, I do not expect there to be a fight over accepting Stimulus money. So, we hope that help is on the way to you and your family.
The not-so-good news is that there are countless other unemployed South Carolinians who had their benefits cut off long ago (but are still without gainful employment) who no one is talking about. What about those unemployed workers whose benefits were previously terminated? Where are they? Where are the jobs for these workers? What is being done to help them get back to work?
These questions are the things that we as state lawmakers must provide answers? I learned at Governor Sanford’s Unemployment Roundtable that these answers are not easy to come by. It is not as simple as recruiting business to our state and creating jobs. We are creating jobs in South Carolina. The problem is we are losing jobs too. So while, getting companies to locate in South Carolina and creating jobs is a great start; we as lawmakers need to understand it’s just as important to get people back into the workforce when we lose a job in South Carolina. To get people back into the workforce requires a comprehensive approach to understanding the problem so that we can understand the best solution in our state.
To come up with a solution to this crisis is going to require both parties, along with experts, business community and unemployed workers as well (I was shocked that nearly no one in the meeting had ever needed a job and couldn’t find one. Hence we have many people making decisions about our system but have never had to use our system). I think it’s important to hear from unemployed workers on possible solutions. We need their voices too. We are all in this together. We all need to understand this problem and understand what the solutions need to be. Whatever solutions we come up with will require reforms of the agencies involved in unemployment and workforce development. I was glad to vote for H. 3442, sponsored by Rep. Kenny Bingham, last session that would have begun the reform process to start addressing these unemployment issues by consolidating several agencies under the Governor’s office and renaming it the Department of Workforce Development, but this legislation was sent back to the drawing board in committee for many reasons that I don’t clearly understand. It probably had more to do with the pettiness of our politics, rather than substantive issues with reforming the Employment Security Commission.
We now see how much more this problem is crippling our state and our friends and neighbors who are still struggling to find work. Let’s hope next week when we return to Columbia for the emergency session to extend unemployment benefits that we can get started on solving our long-term unemployment crisis, rather than doing what we normally do. Which is taking a short-term view to come up with a short-sighted solution to a big problem but never do anything to systemically fix (change) the long-term nature of the problem. We must change the unemployment/workforce development system if we hope to prevent the crisis in the future. If we don’t see the need to do it now, when will we ever see the need?
I know I see the need to change the system and I am working on several proposals that I think will address the current crisis for workers who have exhausted their benefits recently as well as those who were cut off dating back to January 31, 2009. I am also working with several colleagues to come up with some long-term reforms that improves our financial stability and encourages more coordination in workforce development and minimizes the abuse in the current system that has exacerbated this crisis.
I also want to hear from you about solutions to this crisis. If you have ideas for suggestions for reducing unemployment or reforming the system, please feel free to call my office at 803-212-6794.