United StatesNorth Carolina

Cooper: General Assembly should re-examine state’s unemployment benefit system

People gather near the North Carolina Legislative Building on Tuesday, April 28, 2020, to protest stay-at-home orders in place at the time amid the outbreak of COVID-19 in Raleigh, N.C.

(The Center Square) – Gov. Roy Cooper called on state legislators Tuesday to improve North Carolina’s unemployment compensation system in light of the economic crisis caused by the response to COVID-19.

Cooper said lawmakers failed to address the system while in session over the past few months. He is concerned the end of a federal unemployment supplemental payment program could have a deeper impact on North Carolinians.

“This extra $600 (per week) has been especially important here in North Carolina, where the Legislature several years ago slashed unemployment insurance benefits to among the lowest in the nation and made them available for only 12 weeks, “ Cooper said.

The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which ends Saturday, offers unemployed workers an additional $600 per week for 13 weeks.

Claimants can get up to $350 weekly under the state’s regular unemployment insurance program.

North Carolina’s unemployment trust fund is supported by taxes on employers. The fund had $3.9 billion when the pandemic started.

Since March 15, the Division of Employment Security (DES) has paid $1.5 billion to more than 815,000 North Carolinians. The federal government has issued $4.6 billion in supplemental benefits. FPUC accounts for $4.2 billion of that.

Cooper sent a letter to state Congressional leaders Friday requesting an extension of the federal benefits.

An April 9 report by the Tax Foundation, predicated North Carolina’s trust fund could last up 29 weeks (16th among other states) based on the number of initial claims the state received and its solvency or debt ratio.

The state has been able to keep its unemployment trust fund solvency level low by cutting the amount and duration of the benefits available to unemployed workers. The national standard for unemployment benefits is 26 weeks.

“The General Assembly took decisive action to help unemployed North Carolinians receive benefits quickly by cutting red tape and building one of the strongest unemployment trust funds in the nation,” said Joseph Kyzer, spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. “Lawmakers continue to assist desperate citizens still waiting for benefits from the governor’s administration who call our offices on a daily basis frustrated with his ongoing failure to fulfill unemployment claims.”

The Senate tried to raise the maximum weekly benefit to $400 in April, but the House struck down the plan during negotiations over the state’s coronavirus relief package.

Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for Senate Leader Phil Berger, R- Rockingham, also said Tuesday senators have received numerous complaints about DES staff hanging up on, laughing or yelling at applicants.

“Gov. Cooper needs to quit passing blame for his own administration’s failure to assist unemployed North Carolinians who wait weeks to get a response from the Division of Employment Security,” she said.

Berger’s office is standing by to see what the federal government does, Horsch added.

The North Carolina Department of Commerce did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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