$600 unemployment boost hits next week, checks for self-employed will take longer
Posted April 7, 2020 1:06 p.m. EDT
Updated April 7, 2020 1:22 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — The $600-a-week unemployment boost from the federal government should start showing up in North Carolina's unemployment checks next week, a state unemployment official told lawmakers Tuesday.
The boost will be retroactive, going back to last week.
Another federal program to pay benefits to people who don't normally qualify for them – independent contractors and the self-employed – will likely take another two weeks or so to stand up, Assistant Secretary for Employment Security Lockhart Taylor said.
Federal guidance on that program, passed by Congress late last month, came down Sunday night, runs 43 pages and "was written by the federal government," Taylor said.
Among other things, the state will have to confirm that people filing for the payments represent legitimate companies.
"If I could flip a switch tomorrow and have it go, I promise you I would do it," Taylor said.
It wasn't immediately clear whether people who will eventually qualify for the program and who have already applied for traditional benefits will need to reapply in the coming weeks. Taylor said the Division of Employment Security will try to move "as much of that over as possible, but it is going to be a separate application process."
The state's online filing system has told independent contractors that they're not eligible for regular benefits, but that doesn't mean they won't get federal unemployment benefits, he said.
Several new federal unemployment programs are coming online to boost benefits, provide benefits to more people and to extend the period of time people can get benefits. Among other things, this will cover people who've already exhausted their regular benefits, which is otherwise capped in North Carolina right now at 12 weeks.
The payments are in addition to the direct $1,200-per-person stimulus payments the federal government is expected to send out in the coming weeks.
A state House working group on COVID-19 issues met via teleconference Tuesday to hear from Taylor and others. The legislature is expected to go into session later this month to deal with a number of issues, but House budget writer Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, said the General Assembly likely will delay work on the next state budget until July or August, when it knows more about the economic impact from COVID-19.
State officials expect a large revenue hit as businesses close or scale back operations. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey reports one in four businesses shutting down, 30 percent with shortened hours of operations and 17 percent that have adjusted employee salaries or hours, according to a North Carolina Chamber presentation lawmakers heard Tuesday.
The National Federation of Independent Business' state director, Gregg Thompson, told legislators that its monthly "optimism index" saw the largest monthly decline in its 47-year history last month. He said half of small businesses surveyed said they won't last more than two months under current conditions.
The state's unemployment system has been overwhelmed with claims, processing more than 450,000 in the last three weeks. The system has averaged more than 20,000 claims a day, and many people have reached out to WRAL News to say they couldn't get their claim filed or reach anyone on the phone.
It takes two weeks from a successful claim for checks to go out, and Taylor said $28.6 million has gone out since COVID-19 started closing businesses, covering some 110,000 claims.
Taylor said the office continues to add people to its call center and streamline its online system. He said DES is redirecting some calls from its two regular call centers to a private center it contracted with. That center started with 50 people, but that was "a grain of sand in the Sahara," Taylor said, and this week, it's adding another 150.
"We think that is going to ... serve as a pressure valve," Taylor said.
He said DES got 250,000 calls last week and that he knows a lot of people are unable to reach anyone due to volume. He said people are also faxing in a lot of "unknown documents," tax documents and other backup for claims that the division can't connect with actual claims.
He said workers from the state's temp agency are working on this, as well as answering calls. Other staff are trying to address username and password resets that have become a problem, and Taylor said the system is no longer locking people out after three incorrect password entries.
"We're trying to get that system better," he said.
The working group also looked at a handful of bills Tuesday that the legislature is likely to deal with once in session. One would, as General Assembly leadership has already promised, waive interest on taxes filed by July 15.
The state and federal governments already moved the income tax filing deadlines from April 15 to July 15, but it will take legislative action to waive interest on state payments that come in after April 15.
The House is also considering a tax credit to cover 2020 unemployment insurance fund payments that employers make by April 30. The bill would also allow employers to file unemployment claims for their employees, and it would codify several changes Gov. Roy Cooper has made in the state's unemployment system through previous executive orders.