Reprieve for N.C.'s extended benefits?

The Charlotte ObserverApril 8, 2011 

Lawmakers are pushing to reinstate extended unemployment benefits in North Carolina, days after state officials announced they would end the program.

A bill introduced in the N.C. House this week seeks to change the way the state's eligibility is determined. Without the change, the extended benefits - federally funded payouts that stretch up to 20 weeks after job seekers exhaust their first 79 weeks of unemployment benefits - will end April 16.

About 37,000 job seekers stand to lose their benefits as a result.

Officials at the N.C. Employment Security Commission learned Friday that the program would end because the state no longer meets federal requirements because of its slipping unemployment rate, 9.7 percent in February.

But that's still much higher than before the recession, and thousands of people remain out of work with few leads. State Rep. William Wainwright, a Democrat from Craven County, introduced the bill Tuesday.

At issue in the legislation is the "look-back period" used to determine whether the state qualifies for extended benefits. The federal Labor Department, which monitors states' jobless rates and determines when to trigger the program on and off, compares North Carolina's three-month average unemployment rate with the same three-month average in the two previous years. The bill proposes considering the North Carolina rate from three years ago, too, before unemployment began to surge. The federal government last year began allowing states to adopt a three-year look-back period.

The state operates the extended-benefits program, but it must follow state and federal law and Department of Labor policy, said Larry Parker of the N.C. Employment Security Commission.

"We know that a lot of people are going to be affected by this," he said. "This is money that goes back in the economy. This is money that pays people's bills. It's very important that these people still have these benefits."

If the bill passes, the change would take effect immediately, and the extended-benefits program would trigger on again before expiring in January. Parker said the change would be retroactive, too, if it happens after the current benefits expire April 16.

N.C. job seekers are eligible for up to 26 weeks of initial unemployment benefits, plus up to 53 weeks of emergency unemployment compensation through a federal program set to expire in January. Qualified job seekers can currently receive 20 weeks on top of that, for a maximum of 99 weeks - nearly two years - of government benefits.

A provision in the 2009 federal stimulus act allowed federal funding for the 20 additional weeks of jobless benefits, and at least three dozen states, including North Carolina, decided to participate. Last month, Missouri officials voluntarily quit the program, citing efforts to stem government spending.

North Carolina has paid more than $750 million in extended benefits to 234,000 people since October 2008, Parker said. The federal government has paid those benefits in full since February 2009, he said.

Kirsten Pittman: 704-358-5248

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