No Labor Day celebration for low-income workers, unemployed

September 2, 2013 

The struggles of unemployed people and those in low-wage jobs scraping to get by were featured at AFL-CIO headquarters on Labor Day, where labor and civil rights leaders said new laws championed by state Republicans are making life harder for many people.

They criticized Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the GOP-led legislature for letting the Earned Income Tax Credit end and for cutting unemployment benefits.

The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, called the press conference an installment of the “Moral Monday” protests that drew thousands and resulted in more than 900 arrests over several weeks.

Willietta Dukes, 39, who picketed for higher pay outside a Durham Burger King last week, said her employers should raise her pay for improving customer satisfaction, not take bonuses for themselves and give her gift certificates. “I don’t think it’s fair,” she said.

Dukes makes $7.65 an hour, a little more than minimum wage, though she said she’s had fast-food jobs for nearly 13 years.

She blasted legislators for allowing the Earned Income Tax Credit to expire. “It’s a slap in the face,” she said.

The credit is for low- and moderate-income wage earners, and about 900,000 taxpayers claimed it two years ago. The rebate maxed out at $294, and it cost the state about $105 million. Next year is the last workers can claim the credit.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said reports of fraud influenced lawmakers’ decision to end the credit. Rep. Julia Howard, a Mocksville Republican, cited a report from the Internal Revenue Service estimating that 25 percent of claims nationally were fraudulent.

Wayne Bostick lost his job as a forklift operator two years ago and hasn’t been able to find another. The state’s new unemployment law reduced benefits for laid-off workers and triggered the end of extended federal unemployment benefits. At 8.9 percent, the state’s unemployment rate is tied for third highest in the nation.

“This is not a good time in North Carolina,” Bostick said. “I’ve given up hope.”

To stay afloat, he said he’s “fixed appliances … whatever I can do to help get some money.” Bostick is thinking of starting his own handy man business.

Republicans said the unemployment benefits cut was needed to help pay off a federal debt of more than $2 billion. The state had to borrow money from the federal government to cover unemployment benefits when layoffs soared in the recession. For years, Democrats and Republicans cut unemployment insurance taxes businesses pay, so there was little reserve when the recession hit and business layoffs came in waves. North Carolina and most other states had to borrow money from the federal government to pay unemployment claims.

Businesses must pay higher federal unemployment taxes until the debt is paid, and the cut to benefits is meant to speed the repayment.

Barber said cutting unemployment slows job growth because it takes money out of the economy.

“When you take people’s unemployment, you do not create jobs,” he said. “You create an atmosphere for less jobs.”

Rucho said unemployment benefits were meant to be short-term, not an extended benefit for people to use in place of a paycheck.

“It was never designed to be a long-term government assistance program,” Rucho said. “It was designed to be a stop-gap to get people on their feet within 26 weeks.”

People whose unemployment benefits run out can turn to assistance programs such as food stamps, Rucho said.

“Our goal was to re-establish the financial integrity of the system,” he said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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