Raleigh, N.C. — State House lawmakers on Thursday tentatively approved a package of changes to their 2013 overhaul of the unemployment insurance system.
House Bill 1061 requires job seekers to show proof they've sought five jobs per week, instead of two. It also codifies the agency's new requirement that benefit recipients show photo identification in a face-to-face meeting at a local unemployment office within four weeks of receiving their first check.
The legislation also clarifies that the state does not have to release records of contested unemployment cases to attorneys every day.
Employment attorney Monica Wilson sued the state earlier this year after Division of Employment Security director Dale Folwell announced he would end the 10-year practice of handing out paper copies of upcoming case notices to lawyers every morning. Folwell said it was unfair to more distant law firms.
The issue led to a legal standoff. A Wake County judge ordered the state to continue the daily release of records, while the U.S. Department of Labor ordered the state to stop the release, saying it violates federal law.
Bill sponsor Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, said the federal agency asked the state to make the change.
House Democrats used the vote as an opportunity to criticize the 2013 unemployment overhaul.
Rep. Ken Waddell, D-Columbus, tried unsuccessfully to amend the measure to change the formula the state uses to compute the maximum number of weeks of benefits. It's based on the statewide unemployment rate.
Because the statewide rate has dropped to 6.2 percent as of April, the maximum length of benefits is scheduled to drop again July 6. The new maximum will be 14 weeks – one of the shortest durations of any state in the country.
Waddell said his rural county. where the jobless rate is higher, hasn't yet seen the "Carolina Comeback" that Republican leaders have been touting.
"These folks are hurting. They really are," he said.
Howard spoke against the change, saying it would delay by a year the payoff of state employers' $2.7 billion debt to the federal government for jobless benefits during the recent recession.
Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said the average weekly jobless benefit in North Carolina has dropped from $301 before the 2013 overhaul to $227 now.
"Friends, you are hurting the working people of this state. You're also hurting your local economy," Luebke said.
"We’ve made it more difficult for people to qualify, we’ve reduced the amount they can receive, and we changed the way we count the numbers, so unemployment appears to be lower," said House Minority Leader Larry Hall.
But Republicans defended the changes. Rep. John Blust , R-Guilford, cited the rapid decline in the state's unemployment rate over the past year.
"There have been tens of thousands of new jobs. North Carolina is one of the leading states in the nation for job creation. So, the approach the majority is taking appears to be working," Blust said. "The plan is working. This is just fine-tuning it."
The vote was 77-39, along party lines. House lawmakers will take a final vote on the measure next week. It then goes to the Senate.