Raleigh, N.C. — The state Division of Employment Security hopes to erase a backlog of initial jobless claims by the end of March, Assistant Commerce Secretary Dale Folwell told lawmakers Wednesday.
Federal standards require states to pay 87 percent of first-time unemployment claims within 21 days. North Carolina has lagged behind that benchmark since the state's overhaul of its unemployment insurance system took effect last July.
Folwell said 83 percent of initial claims are being paid in the required window, and "a flag has been thrown on the field" in the remainder of cases, necessitating further investigation from the agency.
Changes in the unemployment system require that the Division of Employment Security recoup over-payments to unemployed workers who are ineligible for benefits or are trying to game the system, so Folwell's staff has started more intensive reviews of unemployment claims on the front end.
"This agency has been in the mode of paying and chasing for decades." he said. "We owe it to the unemployed people of this state to get it right the first time."
The Division of Employment Security still has 12,800 claims applications in its queue, he said, but the recent spate of winter storms has delayed efforts to clear the backlog. Whenever Wake County public schools are closed, some of his staff have to stay home with children, so productivity drops by about 20 percent, he said.
"We do see a light, with a little help from Mother Nature, at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Still, more work on the front end is yielding results, Folwell said.
A year ago, the first round of appeals for denied claims took 14 to 18 weeks to resolve. That is now down to 21 to 30 days, he said. Subsequent appeals previously were backlogged up to 280 days, and that's now down to 53 days.
Also, a majority of North Carolina unemployment cases now pass an independent federal check for the first time since at least 1997, he said. Federal officials sample 100 cases and match their findings with those of the state, and 54 percent now match up, compared with only 12 percent a year ago.
Folwell said U.S. Department of Labor officials told him they suspect North Carolina's improved scores are the best in the nation, although they haven't officially determined that yet.
"We're trying to do it correctly, not just quickly," he said.