Editorial: North Carolina's neglected unemployed need and deserve better, now

Posted April 10, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT

A closed store, March 16, 2020. Shutdowns in the retail and hospitality businesses may be an early sign of the job losses that the coronavirus outbreak will inflict on the economy. (Gabby Jones/The New York Times)

CBC Editorial: Friday, April 10, 2020; Editorial #8528
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company.

When it comes to demonstrating concern for working North Carolinians, here’s what Senate Leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and former state House Speaker and now U.S. Sen Thom Tillis have to show:

  • The lowest in-the-nation unemployment insurance system – leaving the flood of newly unemployed with unreasonably small weekly benefits and for very few weeks. When the recently passed federal boost in benefits ends, which these workers receive for a shorter period than workers in most other states, they will find themselves in deep financial trouble. The state’s current unemployment system status, say economic experts, has left North Carolina in a more challenging position to recover from a recession.
  • By being one of just 14 states that has not expanded Medicaid – that already has left half-a-million North Carolinians without access to health care and worsened the already shaky status of rural hospitals – has left those who just days ago had health coverage and now suddenly none with little ways to afford care they may need.

That lack of concern and preparedness has left nearly half a million hard working North Carolinians, who never dreamt of being out of a job, applying for unemployment benefits as a result of policy orders relating to the COVID-19 outbreak. They may be victims of a legislature that too often sought to comfort the wealthy at the expense of the state’s working families, children and the disadvantaged. The 2013 reforms to the state’s system, in reality “was an ideologically inspired effort to effectively eliminate unemployment insurance.” It appears to have been working. At the end of 2007 about 38 percent of North Carolina’s unemployed received unemployment insurance payments for as many as 26 weeks.  By the end of last year, that was down to 10 percent who received benefits for no more than 12 weeks.

During the first three months of this year – and most of that coming in the last three weeks – unemployment insurance claims were 7 times more than the same period a year ago – 304,807 compared to 39,219. Weekly claims so far this year have been greater than in 2008 with the start of the Great Recession.

Gov. Roy Cooper and his administration have made a sincere effort – without excuses or casting deserved blame elsewhere for any shortcomings -- to crank up a system that was made to handle a few thousand claims a week to one that is flooded with thousands a day. It hasn’t been easy with a late-to-the-game federal government. And it hasn’t been without problems – real ones that impact people who need help.

State Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland and the Cooper administration have, to the best of their ability, confronted the challenges; assessed the needs; and worked to address them as rapidly as possible. That is leadership.

State employment officials have scrambled to hire more people – 350 so far. They’ve contracted with call centers to handle the deluge of claims and added more servers to handle online processes to deal with what Cooper called an “overwhelming crush of claims.” Additional federal funds for the administration, approved in recent legislation, probably won’t be available until June.

Addressing administrative processes, however, will not fix the fundamental issue – North Carolina’s unemployment insurance benefits are less than they were a decade ago and fail to provide the help that is needed today.

Twenty Republican state senators last week sent a letter to state Commerce Secretary Copeland pointing out that the “unemployment benefits system cannot respond adequately to the rapid increase in unemployment claims.”

They continued: “These citizens are rightfully anxious about their newly desperate circumstances.”

No kidding.

“We write to offer help and support,” they said, adding “but things need to improve quickly. We look to you and the Governor to lead.” The letter offers “help and support” and adds, “we welcome your feedback on what policy changes could be enacted into law to allow the Department to better deliver critical support.” What is most significant about the letter to Copeland – 11 of the 20 Republicans who signed the letter voted for the 2013 bill that slashed benefits to unemployed workers. They set the foundation for the troubles Copeland and Cooper are working to address.

We do however, welcome the senators’ letter at face value and their offer to work with the governor is encouraging. We hope they are talking. They might start with a state budget compromise. But they already know what needs to be done and the upcoming short session of the legislature is when they should do it.

  • Acknowledge that the unemployment benefits today are less than they were in 2007 (an average $282 per week for 26 weeks then and now just $277 a week for 12 weeks – lowest in the nation). Accordingly, they should pledge to boost payments to no less than the national average -- $387 a week and extend the period to 26 weeks.
  • Recognize that many of those most in need now don’t qualify under current unemployment insurance rules. The rules should be revised to include self-employed, low-wage, part-time and contingent members of the labor force.
  • Expand Medicaid so EVERYONE in North Carolina has access to the health care they need.
  • Offer to press the U.S. Senate (read North Carolina Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Tillis) to make emergency unemployment insurance administrative funds available now.

This is simple – either you care about our unemployed and our uninsured, or you don’t.

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