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'Unwise' state policy could compound coronavirus impact for low-income workers

Empty Beds, Empty Wallets

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The impact of COVID-19 was beginning to spread through Charleston's tourism industry a week ago as cancellations added up by the hour. But as the possibility looms that service-sector workers will spend time out of work, they may not be able to turn to social safety net programs.

Avocet Hospitality Group's Tides hotel on Folly Beach and the Vendue downtown had experienced a "slow down" in reservations, company representative Kris Altman told the City Paper March 12. There had also been an "uptick in cancellations, reservation modifications" this month and for the first part of April.

At one downtown bed and breakfast, an employee who asked not to be named said staff has actually noticed an increase in traffic from local residents at the hotel. "One lady said she was going to do a cruise, but decided not to," opting for a vacation in town.

Despite some hotels noticing changes, some bars and restaurants popular among tourists said they were staying busy.

Blind Tiger manager Richard Joo said the popular Broad Street bar had not seen a decrease in customers.

In other parts of Charleston, large St. Patrick's Day gatherings were canceled to avoid events where asymptomatic people could spread the virus despite their best efforts. In Charleston, the mayor has ssked restaurants and bars to limit capacity to 50, while in New York City and elsewhere, they have been ordered to close altogether.

As of Monday, South Carolina had 33 confirmed cases and reported its first death related to the pandemic. Nationwide, there have been 68 deaths and more than 3,400 cases.

Gov. Henry McMaster requested $45 million from state surplus funds help the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control combat the virus.

After previously calling on schools and local leaders to go about business as usual, on Sunday, McMaster ordered the state's public schools to remain closed through the end of the month.

Just when low-income workers might need a way to get food during the pandemic, the state agency charged with being their advocate might have its hands tied.

A state budget proviso bars the S.C. Department of Social Service from seeking a federal waiver on 2015 work requirements for South Carolinians to receive food stamps.

Low-income worker advocates say this lack of flexibility could cause people to go hungry in South Carolina if the pandemic continues to thrash the economy and workers lose hours. But a state senator countered that no one would go hungry so long as they prove they are looking for a job.

The S.C. House of Representatives last week passed its version of the state budget, which includes a renewal of the proviso. Federal policy requires able-bodied adults without dependents to work 20 hours per week to receive assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Senators will draft their version in the coming weeks.

DSS staff said in a statement to Statehouse Report, the City Paper's sister publication, that "If South Carolina were to experience a widespread, long-term impact due to coronavirus, then we would expect an increase in the SNAP caseload."

It is unclear, however, whether the governor could or would consider removing the proviso as part of his response to spread of the coronavirus, because his office did not respond to a request for comment.

'No fault of their own'

Low-income worker advocacy nonprofit S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center has sounded the alarm since the proviso was first proposed in the Senate in 2018. Director Sue Berkowitz said the coronavirus shows "why you should never do" workforce requirements for benefits or provisos limiting state response.

"We have to look at (the pandemic as) what kind of benefits and resources will be available to help people get through this," she said. Contract employees, food and beverage workers, and other low-income or tip-based workers may fall below the threshold for benefits "through no fault of their own."

"It's really concerning (for people) living paycheck to paycheck," Berkowitz said.

DSS plans to preserve continuity of operations during a state of emergency or quarantine situation, and address an increase in caseloads, according to the statement.

'It's not a cruel proviso'

Hopkins Democratic Rep. Wendy Brawley said she opposes the proviso, though no effort was made during the House budget deliberations to remove it. Now that it has passed through to the Senate, she said she would like to see it reversed.

"I'm hopeful that the leadership will recognize that housing and food is just as essential as the testing that needs to be done for coronavirus," she said. "That proviso was unwise."

Lexington Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy was one of a handful of Republicans who proposed adding the proviso to the 2018-2019 budget. She said she stands by her support.

"It's not a cruel proviso; it just says you have to apply for a job somewhere," Shealy said. "Whatever the federal law is, you have to be following that. It's not anything unreasonable ... People are reading more into this proviso than is out there."

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