Worker advocates call on lawmakers to restore jobless benefits

Posted April 7, 2016

— Advocates for workers on Thursday called on state lawmakers to reverse the cuts to unemployment benefits they approved three years ago.

In 2013, when state businesses owed the federal government $2.5 billion for jobless benefits paid during the recession, lawmakers overhauled the unemployment insurance system to pay back the debt more quickly. The burden fell mostly on people who had lost jobs, leaving North Carolina among the worst states nationwide for helping laid-off workers.

When Anna Jensen was laid off in Durham in 2014, she said she thought unemployment would cover her basic needs until she found a new job. She was shocked by how little she actually got, noting that, if it weren't for her parents' help, she wouldn't even have been able to pay her rent.

"What about people who don't have parents they can call for help?" Jensen said Thursday. "What about people whose jobs help them support their parents, or what about people that have kids themselves? What happens to them in the system?"

Before the overhaul, North Carolina's unemployment benefits were close to the national average. Now, they're near the bottom of the list.

A laid-off worker could get up to 26 weeks of help in 2012, for example. Now, it's just 13 weeks – only Florida provides fewer weeks of benefits.

The checks are smaller now, too. The average weekly benefit has dropped from $298 in 2012 to $235, which is about a quarter of the average state salary.

It's also harder to qualify for unemployment. Before the reforms, four out of 10 laid-off workers got assistance; now, only about one in 10 qualifies.

George Wentworth, a national unemployment expert, said 13 weeks of assistance isn't enough for those in rural areas with high jobless rates or for workers who need to be retrained.

"Of the people that are in the unemployment insurance system right now, 50 percent of them are coming out the back end after week 13 without having found a comparable job," Wentworth said.

He also criticized a requirement that workers accept any job that pays 120 percent of their weekly benefit amount after 10 weeks on unemployment.

"That’s a wrong policy choice, flat and simple," he said. "The state’s economy is going to benefit when workers can get back on the ladder somewhere close to the rung they fell off. When workers with master's degrees have to take part-time jobs at Starbucks, this is not what you want to grow your economy and your revenue."

Bill Rowe, general counsel and director of advocacy for the North Carolina Justice Center, said unemployment insurance is supposed to ensure that people don't slide into poverty or homelessness when they're laid off through no fault of their own. Jobless checks also stabilize local economies when big employers shut down, but Rowe said North Carolina's current system is capable of neither helping workers nor their communities.

"We've got people getting laid off these days – Freightliner, 1,000 workers, Miller Breweries is laying off hundreds of workers – and they're going into a system that may not be able to support them or their communities," he said.

The debt to the federal government was repaid last August, and the state unemployment insurance reserve fund now is about $1.2 billion.

Rowe and others say lawmakers should now consider reversing some of the cuts, but the McCrory administration wants to build the reserve to about $2.4 billion to weather future downturns in the state economy.

Ted Brinn, who heads the Division of Employment Security in the state Department of Commerce, said his agency's main focus is helping people find new jobs more quickly. He declined to comment on whether existing benefits are adequate.

"The best possible outcome for everybody, of course, is that, if you want a job in North Carolina, you can get a job in North Carolina. Then the unemployment system doesn't have to be the system that it is," Brinn said.


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  • Jacob Smirnov Apr 10, 2016
    user avatar

    Ken, I think unemployment benefits should be raised. Your analogy is quite flawed. The rules (laws) change all the time. That's why we are better off with an equal number of democrats and republicans in power. That is gridlock and gridlock means no new laws to mess up our lives. Now if only we could get the Supreme Court in that same impotent position.

  • Ken Ackerman Apr 10, 2016
    user avatar

    Imagine a State where you are crossing the road on the crosswalk following all the rules you've been taught, you get run over by a limousine that runs the red light, crippling you for like, and you get the ticket. Why? Because the guy in the limo makes the rules. That's NC.

  • Ken Ackerman Apr 10, 2016
    user avatar

    As long as the current hate group is in charge anyone down on their luck, handicapped, old, a minority, or just plain doesn't look like "them" in the mirror will continue to be singled out for punishment for the simple fact that we are not wanted in NC.

    Unemployment no batter now than it was years ago, it's just hidden much better.

    According to the GOP if you are unemployed it's because you are "lazy drug" addicts. I went to college, graduated with honors, worked for 28 years to suddenly decide I am a lazy drug addict.

    Over the last several years I've had a number of conservatives tell me that everyone they knew that was on unemployment was milking it for all it was worth. It's been my experience that people tend to associate with people that think the same way they do. Meaning that their argument is based on the behavior of their fellow conservatives.

    Am I a Liberal? Absolutely not.
    Am I bitter? Absolutely!
    Do I tell people I live in NC? Only if I want to be laughed at.

  • Maurice Pentico Jr. Apr 7, 2016
    user avatar

    I'll admit 13 weeks is a bit short. However, to compare the average weekly benefit to the average salary is incorrect, since most that collect unemployment earn less, as those jobs have more turnover.

    As for finding a comparable job at the end of unemployment benefits... no one guarantees you that.... so why keep paying for something that may not be available?

    Statistics show most people find work near the end of their unemployment benefit period... no matter how long or short.

    The recession ended back in June 2009... Obama saved us all (?).. now lets get back to work.

  • Betsy Sparks Apr 7, 2016
    user avatar

    The benefits period needs to be longer for the sake of white collar workers who get laid off. It can take more than 13 weeks for a person to get through the whole interview /background check process. And the idea that someone who previously made was making $20/hr or higher should be accepting any job that pays 120% of their employment benefit is absurd - that would mean that trained professionals would be expected to take jobs 25%-75% of their previous salaries.

    13 weeks may be enough for hourly employees to get a job, but many of the office workers need more time to be able to get through the lengthy employment process.

  • Richard Hertz Apr 7, 2016
    user avatar

    mcrory and the gop are just taking care of business.