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In October 2023, South Carolina showed a strong labor market, with 6,100 jobs gained. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, nearly 40% of this was in professional and business services. The year-on-year growth was also notable, with a net increase of 2.2%, while unemployment remained at 2.9%. Likely a factor in this growth are the various statutes, rules, and regulations governing labor and employment in the Palmetto State. 

While employment and labor laws are both concerned with workers, they are different in legal terms. Employment laws primarily deal with the legal relationship between an employer and an individual employee. They cover issues like wages, working hours, working conditions, hiring practices, workplace discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination.

Labor laws come into play when a dispute or issue involves a collective group of employees, such as a union and an employer. These laws address forming, operating, and regulating unions; strikes and lockouts; and collective bargaining agreements. 

Employment and labor laws differ from state to state. South Carolina, however, generally follows federal regulations. This article focuses on legislation and regulations that are relevant in the South Carolina context. It highlights issues that matter most to workers, such as compensation, benefits, and job security.

South Carolina Wage and Hour Laws

Minimum Wage and Overtime Pay

South Carolina does not have a law that sets a state minimum wage. Instead, the state follows the minimum wage laid out in the Fair Labor Standards Act. This means that South Carolina employees are generally entitled to a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Like the minimum wage, overtime pay in South Carolina is subject to federal regulations in the absence of relevant state legislation. Thus, for every hour worked beyond 40 hours in a week, non-exempt employees must be paid 1.5 times their hourly rate. This translates to a minimum overtime wage of $10.88. 

If you’re working in South Carolina and believe your employer has paid you below the legal standard, you can file a complaint with the South Carolina Department of Labor.

Exempt Workers

Exempt employees refer to a category of workers who do not receive hourly wages and instead receive a salary. 

An example is tipped employees. They can take a tip credit of up to $5.12, which means their minimum cash wage can be $2.13 hourly, as long as their tips amount to at least $7.25 for every 60 minutes.

Another group of workers that fall under exempt employees are full-time students working for certain employers, like work-study programs. They must be paid no less than $6.16, which is 85% of the state minimum wage, for up to 20 hours of work each week. 

If an employee is less than 20 years old, they will receive a training wage of $4.25 an hour during their first 90 days of employment. After this period, or when they turn 20, whichever comes first, they will be entitled to the standard minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Other workers exempt from the state’s minimum wage requirements include the following:

  • Seasonal employees, such as those in recreational businesses.

  • Casual babysitters.

  • Caregivers for the elderly and people with disabilities.

  • Professional employees in executive or administrative positions, like clerical workers and those who mostly work with computers.

Working Rules for Minors and Students

While students and minors are allowed to work in South Carolina, this privilege is not without restrictions. They can only work in positions generally regarded as safe and have minimal to no health issues. Those aged 14 or 15 are only allowed to work outside of school hours. When school is out, they can work up to 40 hours each week. During summer break, they can only work between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Basic Workers’ Rights

Hiring Policies

South Carolina employers are barred from refusing to hire an individual merely on the grounds of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, or disability. While the state does not have a statewide “fair chance” hiring policy, the state capital, Columbia, and several other counties and cities have “ban-the-box” ordinances. 

Employers where “ban-the-box” ordinances are in place are prohibited from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history during pre-employment. Only when a conditional offer of employment has been extended to the applicant can an employer perform background checks, including reviewing the applicant’s criminal records and wage history.

Workplace Requirements

Employers in South Carolina are required to display approved posters showing key labor and employment laws, such as those pertaining to the minimum wage, overtime rules and regulations, and occupational health and safety. These posters must be in a visible and accessible area in the workplace. Employers that do not comply with the poster requirement will face penalties.

Equal Pay

While South Carolina does not have a certain state-specific statute addressing equal pay, it follows the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963. Under this law, employees who have the same or similar qualifications, experience, and job performance must receive equal pay, regardless of sex.

Under Section 216(b) of the Equal Pay Act, an employer found to be in violation of this law must pay the amount of unpaid minimum wages or overtime compensation. They may also face a fine of $1,100 per violation if they are found to have committed these violations willfully or repeatedly.

Breaks and Leaves

In South Carolina, there is no state-specific law requiring employers to provide breaks or rest periods for employees. However, if an employer, at its discretion, allows rest breaks, they are required to pay employees for breaks that are less than 20 minutes. They have no legal obligation to pay for breaks that exceed 20 minutes. 

The FLSA also has a provision requiring employers to allow nursing mothers reasonable accommodations when it comes to breaks. These may include longer or more frequent break periods so nursing mothers can express breast milk. Accordingly, employers are also mandated to establish a private place, which is not a bathroom stall, in the workplace where mothers can express milk.

With regard to vacation time, employers, particularly those in the private sector, are under no legal obligation to provide such benefits, regardless of whether the time off from work is paid or unpaid. However, if they choose to extend vacation benefits to their employees, they must comply with established policies or the terms of the employment contract. In addition, employers must also notify their employees in writing of these benefits and related rules and regulations.

Vacation leaves may be capped by the employer, or they may be forfeited if the company has a “use it or lose it” policy. Similarly, sick leaves are not guaranteed in South Carolina besides those provided in the Family and Medical Leave Act.

It is not against the law if an employer asks their employees to work on a holiday, as there are no statutes in South Carolina mandating employers to provide holiday leaves. In the same vein, employers are not required to pay holiday premiums unless otherwise specified in the staff’s employment contract or other standing policies.

South Carolina employers must provide their employees with unpaid time off so they can fulfill their jury duty. In contrast, no voting leave is granted to employees in the state on Election Day.

Employees participating in active duty in the military are eligible for unpaid leave of up to five years under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. This law protects the rights of employees to be allowed back to work, to be treated fairly, and to continue receiving group health care benefits while on military leave.

In addition to USERRA, South Carolina state law provides members of the National and State Guards with unpaid leave if the governor calls them to active duty.

Is South Carolina an At-Will Employment State?

Yes, the “at-will employment” principle is observed in South Carolina. This means that the employer can terminate a worker at any time and for any or no reason at all, provided that the grounds for dismissal are not against any local, state, or federal statute. At the same time, an employee can quit their job when they feel like it, and they are not required to explain why as long as the reason is not anything unlawful.

The at-will nature of employer-employee relationships in South Carolina was affirmed by the “Handbook Statute,” which came into effect in March 2004. Under this law, handbooks distributed by employers to their employees will not be considered a contract if they contain a proper disclaimer stating that the handbook does not create an express or implied contract of employment.

As regards the termination procedure in South Carolina, once an employee is fired from their job, the employer must give them their final paychecks within 48 hours from the time of discharge. If this is not feasible, the employer may turn over the final wage before the next regular salary day, provided that the interval does not exceed 30 days from the employee’s separation date from the company or business.

What Qualifies as Wrongful Termination in South Carolina?

Although South Carolina is an “at-will” employment state, allowing employers to terminate employees without or for any reason, this system is not without limits. Wrongful discharge can happen when an employer fires an employee merely because of the latter’s race, national origin, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Discrimination, in whichever form, is a ground for an unlawful termination suit in South Carolina.

Also, an employer cannot dismiss an employee if doing so will violate an implied or express (oral or written) contract. Such a contract, which usually lays down the terms of employment, including salary and benefits, ensures job security and thus can only be terminated if there is a good cause. Firing an employee for no reason will be considered a breach of contract.

Retaliation is another basis for wrongful termination lawsuits in South Carolina. The scenario usually involves an employee being fired for participating in an investigation concerning their employer. This can also happen when an employer dismisses an employee for reporting poor or unsafe working conditions or alerting the authorities to unlawful business practices.

Removing an employee from their job also qualifies as wrongful termination if the reason for the dismissal is against public policy. An example is when an employer fires an employee for refusing to do an illegal act on behalf of their employer. In such cases, the employee filing a wrongful termination against their employer must prove the following:

  • The employee’s refusal to do the unlawful act was the sole reason for their termination.

  • It was the employer who ordered the illegal act. 

  • The act that the employer ordered the employee to do is a crime under the law.

How Do You Report an Employer in South Carolina for Wrongful Termination?

If you believe you were wrongfully discharged from your job, contact the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission. You can arrange an appointment or simply walk in to report your case.

To file a formal complaint, you can either fill out the Employment Initial Inquiry Questionnaire form online or complete the PDF form. Print the form and fax it over to (803) 737-7835, or you can drop it off at 1026 Sumter Street, Suite 101, Columbia, SC 29201. 

Once the Intake Department receives the complaint, it will be reviewed and checked to see if a basis, for example, a discriminatory incident, exists. If proof of wrongful discrimination is found, a Charge of Discrimination will then be formally prepared and assigned a charge number. It will also be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and served to the employer.

The entire process generally lasts around 180 days, although this timeframe may vary depending on a number of factors, such as the complexity of the case, the availability of investigators, and the cooperation of the parties involved.

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Termination Cases in South Carolina?

Aggrieved employees have a maximum of 180 days from the date the act of discrimination occurred to file a complaint with the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission. If this period has lapsed but is within the 300-day mark, the complaint may be transferred to the EEOC, which will then conduct the official investigation. 

Take note that these timelines include weekends and holidays. In case the deadline falls on a non-working day, the employee can still file the complaint on the next business day. The same timeline applies to ongoing harassment cases. If more than one discriminatory act is involved in the case, the deadline will apply to each incident. This means that investigations may be carried out for each incident of wrongful termination.

How Much Can Someone Sue an Employer in South Carolina for Wrongful Termination?

In South Carolina, employees in a wrongful termination lawsuit can recover economic damages, which include lost income, including bonuses and earnings growth, and future income. The court will also likely take into consideration any costs incurred as the fired employee looked for a replacement job.

However, keep in mind that plaintiffs must show that they are finding ways to mitigate their losses, such as looking for another job after termination. If the employer is able to prove that the employee did not do anything to control their losses, the employee may lose their right to be awarded certain damages. 

The employee may also sue and demand payment for non-economic damages. These include compensation for intangible losses, such as the pain, suffering, and trauma they had to deal with after being unfairly terminated from their job.

The court may award punitive damages in favor of the employee if it can be proven that the employer fired them despite knowing that the grounds of dismissal are against the law. Punitive damages are intended to punish such behavior and deter other employers from doing the same. In South Carolina, punitive damages cannot go up to $500,000, or three times the amount of compensation the employee would have received.

Legal Resources for Employees in South Carolina

For workers who were wrongfully dismissed from their jobs or are dealing with other labor and employment concerns, they can contact the following organizations for legal assistance:

South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service

The South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service helps anyone in the state facing labor- and employment-related legal concerns. These cases include discrimination in the workplace, unfair compensation, workplace safety problems, collective bargaining issues, and wrongful termination. The public service offers low-cost, no-obligation consultations via telephone or the 24/7 online option. Its office is available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and its contact details are (800) 868-2284. For those in Lexington and Richland counties, the number to contact is (800) 799-7100.

South Carolina Legal Services

South Carolina Legal Services is a non-profit corporation that represents eligible low-income residents in all parts of the state. They deal with labor and employment problems and other civil legal issues. Their funds come from the South Carolina Bar Foundation, state court filing fees, and other local, state, or federal funding. To apply for legal assistance, SCLS can be contacted at (888) 346-5592. Applications and inquiries can be made online. 

South Carolina Free Legal Answers

South Carolina Free Legal Answers is a virtual platform that the American Bar Association established. It gives low-income residents access to legal advice and information on civil matters at no cost. One has to answer eligibility questions as part of the screening process, then be able to post a question. They will then receive answers from a pro-bono ABA lawyer through email.

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