Advocacy groups for the poor and the state AFL-CIO are pushing state legislators to take action to help unemployed workers and ease the impact of a new law that will significantly reduce jobless benefits.
The groups held a press briefing Monday to promote four bills that have been introduced in the legislature – none of which have been voted out of committee so far.
Advocates want legislators to act before Thursday, the so-called crossover deadline. Legislative rules require that most bills must pass either the House or Senate by then in order to be considered during the current session.
MaryBe McMillan of the state AFL-CIO said that the “most urgent” of the bills, House Bill 922, would push back implementation of the state’s new system of unemployment benefits from July 1 to Jan. 1, 2014.
Preserving the current system through the end of the year would let unemployed workers receive higher unemployment checks and allow them to receive federal emergency benefits that kick in when state benefits expire. Under federal law, states that don’t maintain their weekly benefit amounts lose federal emergency benefits.
About 104,000 unemployed workers would be eligible for more than $700 million in federal benefits over the last six months of the bill if the effective date of the new law is delayed until Jan. 1, according to the bill, which is sponsored by House Minority Leader, Rep. Larry Hall of Durham.
“That is $700 million that would be spent in the local economy,” McMillan said.
Pain for the jobless
Efforts by Democrats to delay implementation of the new unemployment system were rebuffed when the legislature approved the new structure in February. The new system cuts maximum benefits by roughly one-third, from $535 a week to $350. It also reduces the weeks an unemployed worker can receive state unemployment benefits from 26 to a sliding scale of between 12 and 20 weeks.
The new law was a response to the more than $2 billion the state owes the federal government, money that was borrowed to cover the first 26 weeks of jobless benefits when unemployment soared. Scaling back benefits will accelerate paying off the debt, which triggered higher federal taxes for businesses – an increase of $21 per employee per year until the debt is erased.
Hall said that Republican legislators who promised during their election campaigns to create jobs have an obligation to help the jobless in an era where the state’s unemployment rate is above 9 percent and there are three unemployed workers for every available job.
Bills to help workers
The three other bills promoted by the groups are:
• House Bill 737, which would prohibit employers from discriminating against the jobless when hiring new workers. It also would provide a tax credit to employers who hire the unemployed.
• House Bill 815, would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against those with poor credit histories when hiring new workers.
• Senate Bill 645, which would create a work-sharing program that would give employers the option of temporarily reducing employees’ hours as an alternative to layoffs. If an employer cut the hours of all employees by 10 percent, for example, those employees could receive pro-rated unemployment benefits in addition to their paychecks. The bill’s primary sponsor is Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican from Concord.
“We don’t believe anyone should have to have a job to get a job,” McMillan said. “We don’t believe anyone should have to have a stellar credit score to get a job.”
Dreading the cutbacks
On hand at Monday’s briefing was Lee Creighton, 45, of Cary, who has been unemployed since last fall despite a wealth of degrees from N.C. State University – including doctorates in mathematics education and statistics. He was laid off in October from his job as a statistician with the state legislature.
Creighton said in an interview that he has been submitting at least 30 resumes a week but hasn’t been able to find work. Now he’s facing a rollback of benefits from more than $500 a week to $350 as of July 1 – and nothing at all when his 26 weeks of state benefits expire.
“My medical insurance is $513 a month,” Creighton said. “I’m also paying a mortgage and everything that everyone else is paying.”