Three Charleston County Council members pledged Monday night to support a wage recovery program proposed by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. The councilmen voiced their approval for the plan at CAJM's Nehemiah Action, an annual event that provoked heated responses by public officials the last time it took place in 2014.
If the proposal is approved by the nine-member County Council, the county will fund an attorney and a paralegal from South Carolina Legal Services to represent Charleston County workers in wage disputes with their employers. The paralegal would manage a phone hotline for employees' wage complaints, and the county would pay to advertise the service. All told, CAJM is asking the county to set aside about $150,000 per year for the project.
Sandra Davis of New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church described wage theft as "something of an epidemic" in the Charleston area. The 27 Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations of CAJM chose wage theft as their topic for the year after holding house meetings in the fall to hear the complaints of congregants.
"Wage theft occurs when employers refuse to pay overtime. Others demand that employees work off the clock," Davis said. "Still others skirt paying payroll taxes by claiming that their employees are contract workers. This practice has the employee in the position that they have to personally pay additional taxes. Other times, employers garnish wages for uniforms or broken items."
Wage-dispute cases are governed by the S.C. Payment of Wages Act, which requires employers to notify workers of their hours and wages in writing. The law is enforced by the state Department of Labor. However, Davis said, once a Department of Labor employee has finished investigating a labor complaint, a court case to settle the dispute can often take about six months to complete, and the law only provides for a $100 fine per infraction against employers who break the rules.
"There are some employers who will see that fine as nothing more than the cost of doing business," Davis said.
The three County Council members who agreed to champion the proposal are Council Chairman Elliott Summey, Vice Chairman Vic Rawl, and Councilman Henry Darby. They appeared at CAJM's third annual Nehemiah Action, which was held in the sanctuary at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston and was attended by about 2,000 people.
The councilmen's support marks a victory for CAJM, whose previous Nehemiah Action in 2014 was marked by heated confrontation with Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and then-school district Superintendent Nancy McGinley, who both attempted to regain control of the microphone after being asked for yes-or-no responses to CAJM's policy proposals. This year, the Rev. Suzanne Hardie of the Unitarian Church in Charleston laid down the ground rules before the group presented its demands: "We are not going to fight over the microphone this year."
The Nehemiah Action has confrontation in its DNA, drawing inspiration from the bold request of the Jewish cupbearer Nehemiah — as recorded in the Biblical book of the same name — to a Persian king to allow the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the fifth century BC. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey declined an invitation to the event in 2014, criticizing the group's demands on city hiring practices as unrealistic.
But Monday night's event went off without so much as a moment of balking by the three County Council members, who declared their support for the proposal in no uncertain terms. As in previous years, the public officials had already been briefed by CAJM leaders about the demands they would be making.
Elliott Summey expressed his support for the policy proposal in a video shown on a projector during the event (Summey had originally committed to appear in person at the action but chose to submit a video response instead due to a family member's medical procedure). "Yes, I'm going to be supporting y'all's project moving forward. I met with y'all's folks a while back, and we're really excited about it," Summey said. "Wage theft is a big problem in our community, and we'll be getting it on our agenda in this budget cycle to get it done."
Councilman Rawl praised the group during the 30 seconds he was allowed to respond onstage. "What you're asking me to do is to support a budget item of $150,000. You've already put the program together. There's nothing I have to do with it — thank you very much," Rawl said. "I also state, quite frankly, it's great to see everybody out here. Where have you been the last 40 years? Thank you."
Reached by phone Tuesday, Rawl said he didn't have "a bit of a problem" with the format of the evening.
"In the first place, the public always has the right to address public officials," Rawl said. "It's very refreshing to me that, instead of just bitching, they're providing a solution and promoting a solution. And quite frankly, having been an officeholder off and on since 1977, it's refreshing to me that they want to question me on that."
As part of its proposal, CAJM is also asking the Charleston County Magistrate Court to have a judge set aside one day per month to handle wage cases. According to a county spokesperson, Chief Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr. and Magistrate Henry W. Guerard met with CAJM and "explained the options they have available through small claims court."
The CAJM proposal draws inspiration from a similar program that began in Palm Beach County, Fla., in 2013. In January, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County reported that it had recovered about $200,000 in back wages in the program's first year. Palm Beach County Council voted in January to renew the program for a second year.
If the program goes into effect in Charleston County, a lawyer from the statewide law firm S.C. Legal Services would represent clients in wage disputes that often get passed over by law offices due to the low dollar amounts involved. Some cases could be settled with a simple letter from an attorney to an employer; others could go before a county Magistrate Court judge.
Mary Platts, an attorney with S.C. Legal Services, made the case for her firm's services during the Nehemiah Action.
"These claims may sometimes represent a small amount of money, but to these clients, it can meant the difference between paying rent or being evicted, getting a car repaired or missing a job interview, or paying on a debt or filing bankruptcy," Platts said. "I have found my most rewarding experiences in collecting a few hundred dollars for a client."
As part of the evening's program, three anonymous people appeared in videos to share their experiences with what they saw as labor-law violations. They appeared with their faces shadowed to protect their anonymity.
A woman who identified herself as a physical therapist said her coworkers' contract-based pay was being docked for failing to meet productivity goals. A limousine driver said that after reviewing his personal work records, he discovered his employer was shorting him about $40 to $50 per week. And a barista and sandwich maker said a supervisor was pushing her to use her personal money to make up the difference when the cash drawer was missing money at the end of a shift.
"I didn't find out I was being ripped off until I sat in a rally that the Justice Ministry put together, and I heard a guy talk about his experience, and I was like, 'I think I'm getting ripped off myself here,'" the barista said. "I looked at my sister and said, 'I think they're stealing money from me.'"