Newly unemployed in North Carolina?



Did you happen to catch Gov. Pat McCrory on Fox News the week before last? He was full of good news, happy to report that the legislation he and the Republican-dominated General Assembly pushed through last year regarding unemployment-insurance laws has had a wonderful effect, lifting the economy out of its Great Recession doldrums. Of course, there’s a tad bit more to that story.

When the latest unemployment figures came out Friday we learned that, while North Carolina’s jobless figure has dropped to 6.4 percent — down almost 2 percent from a year ago, which, at 8.3 percent was one of the highest in the nation — the June number was unchanged from May. Maybe more importantly, the data showed that the state’s labor pool is still shrinking, down more than 8,500 people in a month. In other words, the discouraged gave up looking for a job.

What’s worse, though, is that those people who lost their jobs and who are now filing their claims for initial unemployment insurance benefits have run smack-dab into the rollout of that new law, passed last year, which became effective on July 1. A person who now finds him or herself out of work, most-often through no cause of their own, is now eligible for a mere 14 weeks of insurance payments — the shortest time-period in the country. It might be even worse than that for some workers, depending on a new sliding-scale system; some might only receive benefits for 12 weeks. That time frame is down from as many as 26 weeks under the old law.

But wait — there’s more! The average weekly check that unemployed person is qualified to receive is down to $227.91 from an average of $301.89 in June 2013, which translates to a reduction, on a monthly basis, of nearly $300. That current average weekly compensation now puts North Carolina at No. 44 among all states.

And so, of course, the battle lines have again become enraged over how the changes to the law have already affected, or will affect, North Carolina. The opinion page of the Wall Street Journal declared on July 4, “North Carolina Got It Right On Unemployment Benefits” because, by their arguments and those on the conservative side of the ledger, the more you “allow” people to “do nothing” and “sit back and collect a check,” the longer they won’t find a job — irrespective of how difficult that might be in a still-struggling economy.

Liberal pundits and left-leaning economic think tanks say those arguments are hogwash. The left strongly refutes claims, such as those made by McCrory on Fox News, that this policy and others have somehow led to a resurgence in North Carolina’s economic landscape. Dean Baker, co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, said last week, “If we look at the data instead of playing games with it, the story is pretty clear. There is zero evidence that cutting unemployment benefits in North Carolina or the rest of the country did anything to spur job growth.”

This law, combined with other state programs, including Medicaid, food and housing assistance, the minimum wage and others, are cited as being at the heart of the Moral Monday movement, which was born in Raleigh last year and then expanded throughout the state. So is anyone listening?

Apparently not. At least not yet. The state Senate passed a revision to the law in June, but McCrory subsequently vetoed it. No matter — the revision would have done nothing, according to most observers, to significantly alter the main provisions. It was simply a dispute over who gets to make some of the regulatory decisions, a struggle McCrory found important enough to merit only his third veto. As of today, no vote on over-riding that veto has been scheduled. On the most significant issues, the left-leaning NC Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon told me today, “Nothing will happen until enough people are outraged enough to push their elected representatives to make a change.”

In the meantime, if you’re one of the newly laid off workers in the state, what you need to know most is this: If you thought there was a strong unemployment system in place to help you through a difficult time, you’re largely out of luck. You live in the state that’s decided it’s appropriate to give you less and to cut you off faster than anywhere else in the country. Pray for real job growth soon, and happy job hunting.

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