Raleigh, N.C. — A day after the U.S. Senate began debating a three-month extension to benefits for people who have been unemployed for months, North Carolina lawmakers met Wednesday to discuss the emergency benefits.
Members of the Unemployment Insurance Oversight Committee expressed skepticism about accepting the added benefits, saying they feared it would encourage people to remain on the unemployment rolls looking for better opportunities instead of taking jobs.
"A lot of folks will say, 'Well, I'm in no rush. I can go ahead because I know I've got additional benefits to try find something,'" said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg.
State law requires job-seekers to take any job that pays more than unemployment after 10 weeks. Still, Rucho remains skeptical.
"There are folks who can take advantage of the system," he said.
Lawmakers last year overhauled the state's unemployment system, cutting the maximum weekly benefit and the number of weeks people could receive benefits, to help pay off $2.5 billion owed to the federal government for benefits paid to out-of-work North Carolinians during the recession.
The changes ended long-term federal unemployment benefits for thousands of people statewide last July, but the Senate bill would allow the long-term benefits to resume in North Carolina.
Gov. Pat McCrory hasn't decided whether to accept the extended benefits, which wouldn't have to be repaid to the government. A spokesman said McCrory is waiting to see if the Senate bill makes it through Congress before acting on it.
The state's unemployment rate was 7.4 percent in November, down from 9.4 percent a year earlier, but the labor force has also shrunk during that time. Nearly 90,000 fewer North Carolinians are working or seeking work, even though the state's population is growing. Those people don't factor into the unemployment rate.
Rep. Paul Tine, D-Dare, said many of his constituents are hurting financially, but jobs aren't there to help them. He said he's not convinced, however, that a federal benefits extension is the answer.
"Unemployment benefits are temporary benefits meant to help get people from losing a job to their next job," Tine said. "So, we've got to make sure we're not turning this into a long-term benefit and creating economic problems down the road."
Doug Holmes, president of UWC, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm that represents business interests on unemployment insurance and workers compensation issues, told the oversight committee that, if the Senate bill makes it through Congress, North Carolinians potentially could be eligible for an extra 37 weeks of benefits, although the bill funds only the first 12. The White House is expected to push for a longer-term extension in the next few weeks, he said.
The extension also would require the state to ramp up its apparatus for distributing federal benefits, including communicating with jobless recipients and determining their eligibility, Holmes said.