Outside a Charlotte unemployment office Monday, as job seekers drifted in for their claims and workers filed out on their lunch breaks, a group of activists demanded help.
About 20 unemployed workers and representatives of advocacy groups called on North Carolina lawmakers to reinstate extended benefits, federally funded payouts that expired in North Carolina last month.
About 37,000 job seekers lost the benefits April 16 after the state was deemed ineligible because of its falling unemployment rate. Now, legislators are sparring over whether to restore the 20-week payments, meant for those out of work more than 79 weeks.
"It's people who are being damaged, and it's wrong, and it's cold, and it has to stop," said Harry Payne, a former state Employment Security Commission chairman and labor commissioner now at the N.C. Justice Center, a liberal think tank.
Reinstating the extended benefits is an especially hot topic in North Carolina, where the 9.7 percent unemployment rate remains above the national average and nearly double the state's pre-recession level. But lawmakers' efforts to do so have stalled so far.
A bill that would change the way the state's eligibility is determined needs more signatures to reach a vote. And last month, Gov. Bev Perduevetoed a separate Republican-authored bill that would have extended the program but would have also forced a 13 percent cut in the governor's suggested budget if there is no spending agreement by the end of June.
State House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg Republican, was not available for comment Monday, but spokesman Jordan Shaw said Tillis wanted to work with Perdue to wrap up the debate.
"We have said publicly we're willing to compromise," he said. "... We're willing to come down off of our mountain, and we hope that she'll do the same."
Shaw said it was important to extend the extended-benefits payments but also to avoid a stalemate on budget negotiations.
"The speaker wants to ... make us get in a room with a real incentive to get a budget figured out this year," he said.
The protest at the ESC office off Albemarle Road was one of a series of events being held across the state to push for a resolution, organizers said. Activists held large signs that read "Quit hijacking $$$$ for jobless workers" and, simply, "37,000."
MaryBe McMillan of the state AFL-CIO, a labor advocacy organization, spoke against legislators who "chose the low road" and sought political gain from the issue.
"Shame on you," she said. "... You hold the lives of 37,000 families in your hands."
Can't find work
Job seekers addressed the crowd, too. Fritz Nowack of Salisbury said he has been looking for work for two years. Laid off from his job as a maintenance mechanic at a trucking company, Nowack, 64, said his age has hindered his search. Last month, his extended benefits expired.
"I can't even get an interview," he said. "It's pretty discouraging, because I'm used to working."
Keith Fountain, 48, of Concord lost his job at a telecom company in July 2009 and has applied for 400 others since. He has gotten maybe 25 interviews, he said, and the best work he has found so far has been a part-time job at a grocery store, with meager pay and uncertain hours.
The job search isn't getting easier, Fountain said after the event, reflecting on his latest dead-end interview. His wife works, so he knows he'll be OK, but "there's so many of these people" in worse financial shape, he said.
"It's just really frustrating," Fountain said. "... None of us asked to be unemployed."
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