Cooper eases rules for jobless benefits amid virus crisis

Posted March 17, 2020 3:09 p.m. EDT
Updated March 17, 2020 3:24 p.m. EDT

— Rules to apply for and obtain unemployment benefits in North Carolina are being scaled back to help people whose jobs have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday.

Cooper signed an executive order prohibiting dine-in service at restaurants and bars statewide to help keep crowds down and limit the spread of the virus, which has already infected nearly four dozen people statewide.

Although drive-thru, takeout and delivery food orders are still available, he said, "I recognize this decision will cost people their jobs."

So, the executive order also adjusts rules for jobless benefits:

  • The one-week waiting period for benefits has been suspended.
  • People won't be required to look for another jobs to obtain benefits.
  • Workers who have had their hours cut back can seek benefits.
  • People can apply online or over the phone and don't need an in-person interview.
  • Employers won't be held responsible for anyone seeking benefits because of the outbreak.

"These changes are designed to lessen the hit on our economy and workers wallets," Cooper said during a news conference. "We know people want to work and that businesses want to stay open. The reality is that many can't."

North Carolina adjusted unemployment benefit rules about a decade ago in the wake of the recession, limiting payments to between five and 20 weeks, depending on the state's unemployment rate at the time, and capping weekly benefits at $350.

The average weekly benefit as of March 3 was $264. The average duration was 8.6 weeks, according to the General Assembly's Fiscal Research Division.

The state's average weekly benefits rank 41st in the country and fourth in the Southeast, and the average duration of benefits ranks 49th nationwide and eighth of the nine Southeast states.

The changes helped the state build a $3.8 billion reserve in its unemployment trust fund, which legislative leaders said Tuesday could be quickly tapped to help North Carolina workers during the crisis.

"Those who are missing paychecks and bearing the brunt of these drastic economic measures need immediate access and support from these benefits and can have confidence our state will provide another robust disaster response," House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement.

"Between federal unemployment assistance and any adjustments made to the well-funded state program, assistance will be in place for North Carolinians impacted by the economic fallout from efforts to contain the virus," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement. "What adjustments to the state program might be necessary will become clearer once we have more finality on what the federal program will look like. But we have a multibillion [dollar] surplus for times like this."

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.