If there is one hidden issue that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, it is the failure of the North Carolina unemployment system.
Like many of you, I lost my full-time job due to the pandemic and in my case, the organization that I worked for ceased operations. Many have been attributing the failures of the system to the current crisis. While there is admittedly an anomalous increase, the problems we see here are not merely a result of the crisis. Last year, I found myself unemployed for several months.
Thankfully, I had a job prior where I was able to receive the maximum amount on unemployment, which is $350 weekly. However, even back then, I saw that the website was incredibly out of date, many of the questions asked in the weekly certification almost seemed to be intentionally confusing and help was very difficult to come by. Even with this $350 amount, I had to deplete my savings, ask for help and even then this wasn’t sustainable.
The fact that the benefit is so low (it used to be over $500) and is indexed at such a small percentage for low wage workers makes the benefit amount untenable for many. Then I found that North Carolina does not have an office for DES you can go to for assistance. I had trouble finding a job in the field I had been most recently unemployed from and with a depleted savings, decided to take a job at Starbucks to get by.
Working a lower wage job taught me many things. Still, even after being able to leave and obtaining a much higher paying job, when I lost that job, I found that my recent unemployment claim that was resulting from the crisis only reflected the income of my early low wage job and not my most recent. This demonstrated another side of the problem, since the job that I most recently had didn’t fall under the qualifying four quarters.
It made it so that my job at Starbucks was what they utilized to determine my benefit. Thus, I only qualified to receive $89 a week from NC Unemployment. If it weren’t for the $600 weekly CARES Act bonus, I wouldn’t survive (though I even agree that the $600 additional aid should have been indexed by income to prevent people from earning more on unemployment than they did while working). Just getting these benefits required calls every five minutes for hours on end to essentially fail to even enter a queue to have some basic assistance in the process.
Fortunately, I was able to contact elected officials who helped flag my situation and resolve it. However, not every North Carolinian knows their elected officials, nor should they have to, to get help with this system. Answering unemployment questions is not their job, correcting this system however, needs to be. As a fiscally conservative Republican, I agreed with many ways in which the Republicans since 2013 have reduced our state’s debt and balanced our budget. Many of these cuts were grossly needed and this state was notorious for wasteful spending.
However, one thing that I believe wasn’t handled well is our state’s unemployment system. We have to remember that unemployment is not welfare and it is funded by employers. Some argue the 2013 reforms saved employers money that assisted them in hiring. It appears that any improvement in employment rates had more to do with the economy growing and little to do with unemployment reforms in North Carolina.
What is just as important as creating more jobs is protecting those who are already in the workforce. This is a bipartisan problem that requires bipartisan solutions. Governor Cooper and the NC Department of Commerce have a responsibility to fix the logistical side of things, while the legislature must do something about the anemic benefit levels the percentage of income workers are able to recoup.
Should we hire temporary workers to screen incoming calls to reduce the size of the queue?
Should we ask retirees to come in and assist during this time of crisis using their past experience to take some strain off of the call center?
Should we increase benefits as much as they used to be, or perhaps, even go for a modest increase?
These are just some of the questions our state government has a responsibility to answer for the people of North Carolina.
Catherine Whiteford is the North Carolina Federation of Young Republicans Chairwoman and Former State House Candidate.