House passes unemployment insurance rewrite

Republicans turned back two amendments that would have allowed more people to take advantage of benefits or grant more benefits in the case of factory layoffs. It now goes the state Senate.

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House votes on unemployment
Mark Binker
WAKE COUNTY, N.C. — The state House on Tuesday passed a sweeping rewrite of North Carolina's unemployment insurance law, voting 77-42 to cut the value and duration of weekly benefits.

As with an earlier debate on the bill Monday, Republican sponsors of the legislation turned back Democratic amendments to make the bill more generous toward unemployed workers in some circumstances. The measure now goes to the state Senate.

Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, said she mistakenly voted yes on the bill on Monday night.

"Now I want to tell you why, why it is important that I vote 'no' today," Farmer-Butterfield said. "This is not a balanced approach....People affected by this bill are unemployed through no fault of their own."

Farmer-Butterfield and her fellow Democrats said the bill asked unemployed workers to give up hundreds of millions of dollars worth of benefits while asking only $20-plus million in concessions from businesses, who pay state unemployment taxes. Businesses argue they are being hit hard by federal unemployment taxes as well. 

"It isn't that out of balance," said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, arguing the worker-versus-business assertion was a false dichotomy. It was the businesses, he said, that paid for the benefits the workers were using. 

Blust and other Republicans said the state can no longer afford benefits as generous as the $535 per week currently offered. The new maximum benefit would be $350 per week under the bill. 

"The benefits we currently pay with the situation we have are not sustainable," said Rep. William Brawley, R-Mecklenburg.

North Carolina owes the federal government more than $2.5 billion that was borrowed to pay state-funded unemployment claims. The bill reduces the maximum weekly benefits and raises state unemployment insurance taxes in order to repay that debt more quickly.

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, offered an amendment to allow more workers to claim unemployment. The current bill cuts down on the "good cause" reasons that justify claiming unemployment. Glazier's amendment would have added back family hardships as a good cause.

For example, Glazier said, workers who had to leave their jobs to care for a sick child or other family member would be eligible for benefits. Under the current bill, those who have to leave a job because they cannot work a particular shift due to a sick family member would not be eligible.

Glazier argued that his amendment would have little financial impact because only one-tenth-of-one-percent of those who file for unemployment use such family hardship reasons. 

But Republicans said the bill was carefully crafted during the fall and winter and should not be changed. 

"I reluctantly stand again to ask you to vote no on this amendment because we need to keep this bill in tact and let it go into effect and then surely we can go back and look at all the consequences," said Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, the bill's primary sponsor. 

Both the Glazier amendment and another that would have raised the duration of benefits for workers who lost work as part of a mass plant closing failed along largely party-line votes. 

Republicans argued that the bill would free businesses from paying taxes to repay the federal debt more quickly. That, in turn, would spark job creation.

"When do you expect to see the jobs from this bill materialize?" Rep. Yvonne Holley, D-Wake, asked Brawley.

The Mecklenburg Republican replied, "I can't trace you the specific jobs but I can tell you that the macroeconomics scales well...I do know that businesses that are losing money lay people off."

The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing on a companion unemployment bill for Wednesday.

Gov. Pat McCrory backs the legislation, saying it would put North Carolina on par with neighboring states and help people find jobs.

"We've been implementing the current system for a long time, and North Carolina remains the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country," McCrory said. "So, I'm not going to continue to implement strategies that don't work. We're going to try new strategies to get people to work. That's our goal."

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