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As Thom Tillis Lets Federal Unemployment Benefits Run Out North Carolinians Weigh In: It “Puts My Ability To Pay Basic Living Expenses In Jeopardy” & “It’s Scary To Think About”

Thom Tillis and Mitch McConnell have failed North Carolinians once again by allowing the federal benefits to expire, eliminating nearly 80 percent of their income — a number so staggering that “for a family who was already spending half or more of their income in rent doesn’t leave anything for food and other essentials for life.”

Senate Republicans had months to figure this out, but instead of working for the people they are supposed to serve, they’ve abandoned them in their greatest time of need. The federal benefits provided North Carolinians a lifeline when they were out of work through no fault of their own, especially as the state unemployment program is “one of the lowest-ranked unemployment insurance systems in the country in terms of amount paid and payment duration.” 

For Sherry Lawrence, a cafeteria worker at North Carolina Central University, her unemployment pay from North Carolina was just $125 a week: “By the time I got unemployment, I was so overwhelmed because now my bills are behind. I’m struggling, going from food bank to food bank.”

In Raleigh, Thom Tilllis gutted state unemployment benefits, leading to the deeply flawed system we have today. Now, as over one million North Carolinians remain out of work and the federal benefits have run out, he’s sending a clear message to his constituents: “It’s pretty black-and-white what this is going to do to people. If you’re willing to essentially look your constituents in the eyes and tell them that their financial stability, their well-being doesn’t matter.” 

While Senator Tillis’ “way too late” “plan” to combat coronavirus does not even mention unemployment assistance, Cal Cunningham has repeatedly called for an extension of federal benefits to bolster the safety net for families and further economic recovery. 

North Carolinians have very real anxieties as their livelihood hangs in the balance: “‘I hope they don’t cut unemployment all the way off,’ Blalock said. ‘People out here need it. Some people still haven’t gotten their money. People are struggling.’” 

They deserve better leadership from Washington — someone that listens and takes decisive action to serve them. Thom Tillis has failed to do that, caving time and again to his party instead of putting the people of North Carolina first. 

Read more below about the impact of Senator Tillis’ failure to lead.

News & Observer: With weekly $600 gone, NC unemployment benefits alone are not enough, workers say

By Ben Sessoms, Sophie Kasakove, and Brian Murphy – July 28, 2020

  • Sherry Lawrence was working at the salad bar at North Carolina Central University’s cafeteria, making $11 an hour, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
  • Lawrence, who is 46 and lives in the Durham Housing Authority’s Hoover Road community, lost her first full-time job with benefits. The most she had made before that was $8.47 an hour.
  • Lawrence was laid off on March 19, and filed for unemployment the same day — one of almost 1.2 million North Carolinians who have applied for unemployment benefits since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Her first unemployment check didn’t arrive until mid-May.
  • “By this time, rent was due,” Lawrence said. “By the time I got unemployment, I was so overwhelmed because now my bills are behind. I’m struggling, going from food bank to food bank.”
  • Since mid-May, Lawrence said, she has relied on the extra $600 in federal unemployment benefits that was legislated through the CARES Act in late March. Her unemployment pay from North Carolina came to just $125 a week.
  • “It was a big help,” Lawrence said. “When I started getting the $600, it was a big help because I got a chance to catch up on all my rent.”
  • Those extra benefits have now expired in North Carolina, with the last payment going out this past weekend. Their future is in doubt as the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and Republican-controlled U.S. Senate are considering very different economic stimulus proposals.
  • The White House and Republicans in Congress do not want the $600 payments to be extended. Instead, they’ve proposed a new stimulus package — the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act — which would pay laid-off workers an extra $200 a week until states can determine how to provide 70% of pre-pandemic wages to laid-off workers.
  • Senate Republicans are also proposing another round of $1,200 stimulus checks. Everyone who received checks in the first round would receive them this time as well along with an additional $500 for each dependent in the family.
  • Without the extra $600 in unemployment benefits, North Carolinians are left with one the lowest-ranked unemployment insurance systems in the country in terms of amount paid and payment duration, according to data from the Department of Labor.
  • It started in 2013 when, just after securing the governorship on top of both houses, the GOP supermajority passed HB4, a bill that made unprecedented cuts to unemployment compensation.
  • The bill lowered the maximum weekly payment amount from $535 to $350 and completely eliminated state appropriations for unemployment program administration, forcing the program to rely on declining federal funds.
  • As a result, staff time designated to processing initial claims dropped by more than half from 2005 to 2020. The 2013 legislation also shifted to calculating the benefit amount based on earnings in the most recent two quarters rather than the highest quarter of earnings. That caused the replacement rate to drop to 37 cents for every $1 in wages, the lowest rate in the Southeast, according to a recent report from the North Carolina Justice Center, a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to eliminate poverty in the state.
  • The state lags behind the recommended standard of replacing half of lost wages. In North Carolina, the average weekly benefit was $264.70 in the 3rd quarter of 2019, the 10th lowest in the country, according to the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for economic security for low-wage workers.
  • The percentage of North Carolina’s unemployed workers receiving unemployment benefits plummeted to 9.1% in 2019 — the lowest in the United States, dropping as low as 8.3% in the third quarter.
  • HB4 also cut the benefit duration from the previous standard of 26 weeks to a range of 12 to 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate, with the 20-week maximum only kicking in when the rate reaches 9%. The typical worker’s unemployment period is 21.4 weeks nationally.
  • And the bill disqualified some factors, such as following a spouse who has to relocate for work or taking care of a family member, as “good-cause” reasons to receive unemployment.
  • This year, House Bill 1075 in the North Carolina General Assembly would have overturned much of the 2013 legislation, but legislators entered recess in mid-July with no hearing on the bill.
  • The bill, sponsored by several Democrats in the House and Senate, would increase unemployment eligibility from 20 weeks to 26 weeks, and would increase the state’s maximum unemployment benefit from the current $350 to $400 a week. It would change the unemployment calculation so that it’s based on the applicant’s two highest-paid quarters, rather than the current calculation of the last two quarters; and would allow people who left jobs for spousal relocation, health reasons, and family hardship to claim benefits.
  • Lorenzo Mack Jr., 35, did freelance work in the Charlotte area as an audio engineer in the entertainment industry before the pandemic hit.
  • In mid-March, all of the shows that Mack had planned were canceled and he filed for unemployment on March 23. He didn’t receive his first unemployment check until May 1.
  • “It was a scary six weeks. The savings I had got depleted,” Mack said.
  • Once his unemployment check came in, Mack said, he was able to live less frugally because of the extra $600 from the federal government. Without it, he would have been left with $202 after taxes from North Carolina.
  • Mack’s wife is still employed, working logistics at a shipping company, but he said if the $600 a week is significantly reduced, he doesn’t know how long they can make it with their year-old mortgage and other homeowner expenses.
  • “I have no idea how long we could sustain it. We could probably, based on my wife’s income, we would probably be all right for a while, but if we have any emergency, like a health emergency, anything that requires extra funds is money that we just don’t have right now,” Mack said.
  • “It’s scary to think about.”
  • Some employers say the expiration of benefits has put them in a difficult position, with their employees desperate to return to work despite the health risks of doing so.
  • “We feel an immense pressure to do something that we feel is not safe and is not right and puts us in economic jeopardy,” said Cheetie Kumar, owner of Garland restaurant in Raleigh. As the date of the final federal payment approached, Kumar received a stream of anxious calls and messages from her employees.
  • “But [reopening] perhaps jeopardizes our ability to employ them in the future because if we reopen and there’s a case in our staff, which is inevitable, we have to shut down, we have to pay for everyone to get tested, we have to quarantine for two weeks and then we lose all of our perishable inventory again.”