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Transportation remains a barrier for SC companies phasing out subminimum wage


Transportation remains a barrier for SC companies phasing out subminimum wage

Apr 19, 2024 | 2:35 pm ET
By Skylar Laird
Transportation remains a barrier for SC companies phasing out subminimum wage
People watch speeches during the annual Advocacy Day for Access & Independence at the Statehouse on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Speakers talked about how transportation can be a barrier for people with disabilities looking for work. (Provided/Able South Carolina)

COLUMBIA — When Barrett Counterman was looking for a job, he kept running into the same problem: He didn’t know how he would get to work.

Eventually, Counterman, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, found a job at Able South Carolina’s Rock Hill branch mentoring others with disabilities. Coworkers drive him to work every day. That job was a lucky break, he said.

Most employers require reliable transportation. But he can’t drive and can’t depend on public transportation or a rideshare service being available.

“Not everyone is willing to take someone with a disability somewhere,” Counterman told the SC Daily Gazette after speaking Tuesday at the annual Advocacy Day for Access & Independence at the Statehouse.

Transportation is a major barrier standing in the way of people with disabilities finding jobs. It’s also a big reason why there are 321 employees at seven private companies and two state-supported job centers still making less than minimum wage, as of the latest count in February. That is progress — down from 1,111 employees at 21 employers in September 2022.

Transportation remains a barrier for SC companies phasing out subminimum wage
Barrett Counterman speaks during the Advocacy Day for Access & Independence at the Statehouse on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Counterman said he struggled to find a job that would accommodate his needs in getting to work. (Screenshot/Able South Carolina livestream)

Further reducing those numbers will require some transportation ingenuity. Getting to work isn’t the only issue for people with disabilities looking for jobs. But it is a significant one, especially in rural areas, according to a December survey by a state task force.

The deadline for finding a solution is fast-approaching. Under a 2022 state law, companies have until Aug. 1 to stop paying subminimum wages.

However, the law has no enforcement mechanism. There’s no threatened punishment for companies that fail to meet that benchmark, other than the possibility of getting sued.

Since its 1938 inception, the federal law setting the minimum wage has allowed companies to pay people with disabilities far less. The amount is supposed to be based on their productivity, but employers have cited it to pay as little as pennies an hour.

South Carolina is one of 13 states that have passed laws in the past decade barring subminimum wages.

Kimberly Tissot, president of Able South Carolina and head of the task force leading the phase-out, said she’s confident zero companies will be paying subminimum wages come August. Every time an employer finds ways to do it, more follow their example, she said.

“I think that people are starting to feel that pressure,” she said.

In December, the task force created by the 2022 law sought input: What’s standing in the way for the final handful of employers? And how can the state help them overcome that?

Transportation solutions

Of the 10 employers that responded to the anonymous survey, seven replied that transportation was the biggest barrier in helping workers find jobs paying at least minimum wage.

One employer wrote that better transportation would allow roughly 230 people to get out of subminimum-wage jobs.

People with disabilities are less likely to own a car than people without disabilities. And even those who do have a car are less likely than their counterparts to drive, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

People in rural areas, especially, don’t have a bus to take them to work. South Carolina has 27 public transit services, often confined to a single city or county. Even if someone with a disability lives in a city with a bus line, the routes often don’t reach the manufacturing plants that offer the type of work many people with disabilities want, said Mary Reaves, Able South Carolina’s director of community access.

Under state deadline, SC employers phase out subminimum wage

“We reside in a smaller county where transportation is a huge problem,” one employer wrote. “We do have public transportation; however, it only runs during the day Monday-Friday. The cab service as well as Uber is very expensive in our rural area.”

Jesus Ramirez has felt that problem first-hand.

The 21-year-old relies on his family to get him to his job packing shipments for companies. Where he lives in Beaufort County does not have public transportation, so when his work day ends early, like it did a few weeks ago, someone in his family must leave their own job to pick him up.

“Public transportation should be not only in large communities but rural areas too,” Ramirez said.

People answering the survey had various suggestions for how to get people to work. Some called for public transportation. Others suggested a shuttle service. One asked for a local taxi service or drivers’ education programs to teach people how to drive.

‘Have to get creative’

Legislators could be asked to help the remaining employers out, Tissot said.

But there’s no estimate yet for what it would cost. The employers need to come up with their own solution, she said.

“They have to get creative with this,” Tissot said. “There’s no one-time formula to transition because it’s such an individualized approach.”

In some cases, that might mean hiring a contractor to take people to work. In others, companies said they would use extra money to hire job coaches or develop alternative services for people who didn’t want to find a different job.

Of the 853 South Carolinians state agencies managed to track after they stopped earning subminimum wage, 205 didn’t find a new job. Many are going to day centers for people with disabilities, where they can pass time with activities such as crafts and classes.

Another issue raised by survey responses: Some rural areas just don’t have places for people to work, and if they do, many employers have narrow perceptions that make them hesitant to hire people with disabilities.

That stigma is another big reason people with disabilities have a hard time finding jobs, said Sandy Jordan, who leads Able South Carolina’s community integration program. Employers often don’t believe they’re able to be as productive as other workers.

“There are so many biases and stereotypes,” Jordan said.

Creating internship programs and offering more support for people while they’re working are among the suggestions.

Getting people into integrated workplaces will require continued effort from the state, Tissot said. She wants state agencies to monitor companies’ progress to make sure they are actually helping employees find jobs in the community and stepping in as needed.

“Just because it’s over on Aug. 1 doesn’t mean we stop advancing the employment practices for people with disabilities,” Tissot said. “That’s going to be an ongoing effort.”