$14 a month after food, rent: Beaufort Co. nurses and social workers ask for better pay

After rent and food, Beaufort Co. school nurses, social workers are left with change

Beaufort County School District employees talk about the shortfalls in their salaries.
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Beaufort County School District employees talk about the shortfalls in their salaries.

Some of the students Andrea Murray works with on a daily basis don’t have access to a basic necessity — a reliable home.

Murray is the lead social worker for St. Helena Elementary School and schools north of the Broad River, and when she speaks with students about these issues, she knows some of her fellow staff members are dealing with the same thing.

“How can a child come to school and learn when they’re worried about where they’re going to sleep, or they’re sleeping in a home that is overcrowded?” Murray said. “The staff is suffering from the same challenges.”

She still tells young students to go to school and discover their passion — even though she admits that it’s hard for many social workers she knows to make ends meet pursuing theirs.

“We didn’t get into this profession expecting a six-figure income, but we do want to be able to live,” she said.

Students in Margaret Thomas’ art classes at St. Helena Elementary School were decorating grocery bags with portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for distribution to customers on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the nearby Publix grocery store. Jay Karr

As the budget season begins for the Beaufort County School District, staff nurses and social workers are lobbying to be switched to a different pay scale.

“It’s not just band aids,” said nursing coordinator for the district Denise Unruh, RN. “We have several children with chronic illnesses or feeding tubes. Nurses are the only people in the school district that can administer insulin or glucagon.”

Their positions usually require college degrees, but they still have trouble affording groceries, utilities and mortgages.

Amy Morrissette, RN — the staff nurse at Hilton Head Island High School — broke down a monthly family budget with a school nurse’s income in front of district representatives at Tuesday’s budget hearing.

“I take home $829 every two weeks, so that’s $1,658 a month,” she said. “If I’m renting a two-bedroom, I have $1,108 for that. And if I’m being thrifty on groceries, I have another $536 for that. So just to eat and sleep I have a grand total of $1,644 — which means that I am left with $14 for the entire month.”

Traffic appears congested the afternoon of Aug. 18, 2014, on School Road outside of Hilton Head Island High School. The school changed its dismissal time from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. this year, which is near the same time Hilton Head Island Elementary School lets out. Some school officials said that led to a traffic jam. Staff photo

Affordable housing and economic opportunity in Beaufort County

As local leaders try to address workforce housing, they often discuss nurses, teachers and first responders as the target demographic for affordable rental units and homes.

On Hilton Head Island, town leaders hired a workforce housing consultant last year who found that more than two out of five homes listed for sale on the island were priced at $600,000 or higher.

“The estimated median rent on Hilton Head Island was $1,114 compared to $1,060 for the county as a whole,” the report says. “Rents on Hilton Head Island increased an estimated 4.5 percent between 2015 and 2016, compared to a 4.1 percent increase in Beaufort County.”

CEO of Hilton Head Regional Health Jeremy Clark said he expects the health care workforce to be in flux in the near future.

“The hospital is growing and adding services, and none of this works without excellent people and excellent employees — especially our nurses,” Clark said at an April meeting of Hilton Head Town Council. “As I look ahead, we’re going to have nurses who start retiring.”

He said affordable apartments are crucial to the recruitment of nurses who will start their careers on the island, and the average nurse starts at around $60,000 per year.

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Hilton Head Hospital in January 2019. Katherine Kokal, The Island Packet.

A school nurse, however, is often paid less than a hospital nurse, according to Unruh.

“The average pay is $32,000 to $39,000 a year. That’s nowhere near the going rate for a new nurse in the hospital,” Unruh said. “We were hiring for four positions this year. Within two weeks, one declined because the pay was too low.”

School social workers and nurses are paid on a “classified” pay scale as opposed to the “certified” pay scale, which indicates a level of state certification for teachers and department heads.

For social workers, that classified scale means between $21 and $35 an hour. For nurses, that range is from $16 to $33 an hour.

The lowest-paid employee on the certified pay scale starts at $26 per hour, according to the 2018-2019 Beaufort County School District salary and stipend schedule.

Amy Morrissette, RN discusses nurses wages at Bluffton High School on Tuesday, May 14 at the Beaufort County School District’s public hearing of the proposed 2019-2020 budget. Katherine Kokal

For teachers, salaries can increase with further education and years of experience. Social workers don’t have the same mechanism, according to the salary and stipend schedule.

The school district will discuss the budget at its meeting on May 21. The budget will come before Beaufort County Council June 10.

This year is the first year social workers and nurses have made such public appeals at the budget hearings, Unruh and Murray said. They want change.

“It’s just really hard,” Murray said. “We love what we do, but it’s hard to be in a (salary) category where our degrees and our licenses are not recognized.”

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.