|By Jenny Burns, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 10, 2004 - Bernice Major got her pink slip Tuesday.
She won't be returning to her seasonal housekeeping job at the Sands South until about February, when she'll again ride a bus almost four hours round-trip to support her family -- and the $5 billion Grand Strand tourism industry.
Most Grand Strand commuter workers are black women who are the primary breadwinner in their home and support one or more dependent children, said Susan Webb, a sociologist with Coastal Carolina University, who presented results of her decade-long study Tuesday night.
Major and other commuter workers help form the economic backbone of the tourism industry, keeping prices low and sustaining the Grand Strand as a low-cost destination, economists said.
Webb's research provided insight into the lives of the women who ride buses as much as 175 miles one way to make a living.
Most of these women have followed their grandmothers, mothers, aunts or sisters into hotel jobs that they often stay in most of their lives, Webb found.
Major said she makes the 74-mile trip from her home in Kingstree because jobs there are scarce and few pay as well as those at beach hotels.
She is normally up at 5:30 a.m. to get her 7-year-old son ready for school and catch the bus. She returns about 5:30 at night.
"It's frustrating, but if it wasn't for the buses I wouldn't even be down here," said Major, who doesn't own a car.
The workers come from a nine-county radius and typically don't own a vehicle, the research showed. The women own homes and don't want to move because of ties to the land. They are determined to have a job and make ends meet and not end up on a welfare list.
Workers said jobs near their homes pay $5 to $6 an hour, while work in the tourism industry pays $7 or more. In some cases they also get vacation and other benefits.
Rosa Hardee, 55, has been working in hotel housekeeping on the beach for more than 30 years. Her kids are adults now, and she's used to the long ride, although she does get upset when buses break down on her 50-mile commute from Hemingway.
"If I had a job closer, it would be better," she said.
These commuter workers live in what are called the Black Belt counties of South Carolina: inland, rural and persistently poor counties with black populations of 30 percent or higher. Webb calls them "forgotten places."
Williamsburg County had a 17 percent unemployment rate in 2003, compared with 6.5 percent in Horry County.
Webb said these inland counties had few jobs to begin with, and the demise of the manufacturing and textile industries has only made it worse. Those unemployment rates help feed the Grand Strand's tourism industry, which relies on workers from those areas to fill service jobs.
Busing workers is not only happening here, it's happening in Hilton Head and other tourist areas, said Tom Sponseller, president of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.
"It's crucial to the industry that these people come in," he said.
These transportation systems were started because of a push by black ministers who wanted to get their members to work, Webb said. In the 1960s, ministers in Clarendon and Williamsburg counties used church vans to transport workers.
In the early 1970s, one of them led the effort to obtain the state and federal funding for the Williamsburg County Transit Authority, which today has about 18 buses transporting hospitality workers, Webb said.
The Waccamaw Regional Transportation Authority in Horry County also was founded by the efforts of black ministers, Webb said.
"The black women in the hospitality industry who ride the bus are evidence of the desire for self-sufficiency, the need for good jobs, and perhaps more important in rural areas, the necessity of public transportation systems to give people access to work," Webb said.
If a large employer were to locate in these counties, Charleston Southern University economist Al Parish said, hotels would be forced to import workers from outside the country and pay for their living and transportation expenses.
"It certainly would end up raising the cost of running the hotel," Parish said.
The only job opportunities on the horizon for those counties would be call centers or grocery store or Wal-Mart distribution centers, said University of South Carolina economist Don Schunk. But he said those industries are less likely to locate in the Pee Dee until an interstate is built.
The S.C. Department of Commerce won't say whether any potential employers are looking at these areas, but officials are optimistic as the state economy is doing better than last year, said spokeswoman Clare Morris. The department also offers special incentives for employers who relocate in job-distressed areas.
Meanwhile, workers such as Tearly Davis, will continue to make the trek to the beach.
Davis, 38, is in a hurry to get home to her 16- and 18-year-old boys after her work day at Caribbean Resort and Villas housekeeping department. She wishes there was a good-paying job closer to her Kingstree home.
"It's OK. We got to work somewhere," Davis said Saturday before climbing aboard the bus. "Just got to get home to see your children."
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