Opinion

Opinion

Editorial: Facts & fixes to really help N.C.'s unemployed

Posted May 1, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT

Frustrations continue for those trying to apply for unemployment

CBC Editorial: Friday, May 1, 2020; Editorial #8536
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company.


In the best of times, unemployment benefits are not of much concern to most people. That’s a good thing, sort of.

When unemployment is, as it has been in North Carolina for several years, well below 5 percent, there’s little pressure on the system. With good job growth and if all goes as intended, people who need to use unemployment benefits will connect to new opportunities before those benefits run out – even considering the nation’s shortest period that North Carolina offers.

But these are far from the best of times. The troubling shortcomings of the laws meant to protect North Carolina workers are vividly exposed. Even with the added assistance in the recently-passed federal COVID-19 stimulus legislation, North Carolina workers are left in far greater jeopardy than those anywhere else in the nation.

There are key provisions in North Carolina’s unemployment laws that work against the protection of workers and must be changed now. If not tens of thousands of workers who suddenly, in the last six weeks, have been forced from their jobs will run out of benefits and leave themselves and their families without anywhere else to turn.

THE FACTS
Minus any of the recently-enacted ands time-limited special federal help, North Carolina law provides:

  • One of the lowest maximum weekly unemployment benefits of $350.00. Seven states have a lower maximum.
  • The fewest – worst in the nation -- number of weeks the state pays out benefits – just 12 weeks while nearly every other state offers 26 weeks.
  • A handicapped (at best broken -- and cruel at worst) system to increase the weeks benefits are offered as unemployment increases. With an unemployment rate estimated to hit at least 17%, it would seem to trigger the most allowed by law.

The state’s scale, that can be adjusted every six months, provides steps to increase the number of weeks benefits are paid based on the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate – 12 weeks for a rate up to 5.5% scaling up to 20 weeks if the rate exceeds 9%. The chart in state law appears straight forward. It seems simple, but it isn’t.

A look at the fine print in the law, says any change in the number of weeks for benefits to be paid will be based on “the average of the seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for the state for the preceding months of January, February and March” for the change that would be made on July 1. With that standard, state law allows for NO change in the number of weeks benefits are paid.

Why? Because – and here’s the math – the January unemployment rate was 3.6%. The February unemployment rate was 3.6% and the March unemployment rate was 4.4%. That comes to an average of 3.9% -- well below the 5.6% needed to add even another week – let alone the maximum to add an additional 8 weeks when the rate exceeds 9%.

So, thanks to the clever bill authors in 2013, even though there’s likely to continue to be high unemployment rates – it won’t be until January 2021 that there’s any hope of increasing the number of weeks benefits are offered.

Relying upon the federally-funded extension – an additional $600 per week through July and an extra 13 weeks of benefits until the end of the year – still leaves North Carolina workers short changed. They still will receive less money and for a shorter period of time than workers in nearly every other state.

THE FIXES

  • North Carolina needs to increase its maximum weekly benefit. It should exceed the national average of about $385. The state Senate’s COVID-19 response bill does increase the weekly benefit to $400. That’s a good start. The House bill says nothing. The final bill should, at a minimum, include the Senate’s provision.
  • Repeal the state law’s scale used to increase the number of weeks unemployment benefits are paid. It is a sham.
  • Simply increase to 26 weeks, like nearly every other state, the number of weeks benefits will be paid.

These people who are out of work are the backbone of North Carolina’s economy. Their hard work has made our state prosper. This is the least they are due.

Legislators need to adopt these three simple changes to state law and demonstrate the respect owed to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina workers.

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