WRAL Investigates

North Carolina battles unemployment bottleneck

Posted April 7, 2020 6:20 p.m. EDT

— Unemployment claims from the coronavirus outbreak continue to soar in North Carolina, clogging the state's filing system and leading to delays in benefits for workers who can't get through.

Monday, another 21,000 new claims were filed with the Division of Employment Security. That brings the total number of initial claims filed since coronavirus layoffs began to over 445,000. 76% of those claimants listed COVID-19 as the reason they're unemployed.

"I couldn't get through and it was just like a wait and wait and wait," says laid-off Durham restaurant worker Laura Wheeler.

Wheeler, who described the entire filing process as "very difficult," eventually got help thanks to her ability to speak Spanish. Wheeler said she received a call back after leaving a message on the state's Spanish unemployment hotline, "and she helped me out, and I was very thankful."

"This is a frustration that is being faced in every single state in the country.," said Gov. Roy Cooper, D-North Carolina, at a briefing Tuesday, "and there is a strong realization that everybody needs to pick up the pace as much as possible to deal with this overwhelming crush of claims. "

State Commerce officials have said they're adding permanent and temporary staff to the unemployment system to try to process claims faster. But jobless claims keep going up, too.

On today's Council of State conference call, State Auditor Beth Wood said her office was wrapping up work on three pending audits. Once those are completed, Wood said her staff of some 350 people could help out by answering coronavirus hotlines or even unemployment calls.

"If there's any way that you can use my very talented and educated staff, I'm offering all of us, myself included," said Wood.

We also learned more today about some questions filers have told us they can't get answers to.

Officials say the extra $600 in federal unemployment aid will be added to checks starting next week. That aid was part of the most recent relief package. People who filed claims before last week will also receive the extra money retroactively.

Finally, the federal relief package provided expanded unemployment coverage for contract employees and those who are self-employed. We've heard from many of you that it hasn't been available so far. Tuesday, the Division of Employment Security said the state has finally received federal guidance on how to implement that program. It's expected to roll out and be available for the unemployed in two weeks.

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