The maximum of 13 weeks of unemployment benefits that jobless workers in North Carolina are currently eligible to collect is fewer than every state in the nation except for Florida.
In addition, the maximum weeks of benefits offered by North Carolina amounts to only half the 26 weeks offered by 42 other states, said George Wentworth of the National Employment Law Project.
Wentworth was one of several speakers at a press briefing Thursday morning who argued that the state’s unemployment system, which was overhauled in 2013, isn’t meeting the needs of the jobless who rely on it to bridge the gap between jobs.
“This is information and data that needs to be considered,” said Bill Rowe, director of advocacy for the N.C. Justice Center, an advocacy group for the poor. “We are hoping our General Assembly and the governor will look at these numbers and agree with us that the system needs some recalibration.”
Other issues raised by advocates for changing the unemployment system at Thursday’s event sponsored by the Justice Center:
▪ The average weekly benefit has declined to $235, 21 percent lower than the 2012 average.
▪ Just one in eight jobless workers in North Carolina receives unemployment benefits.
▪ The $350 maximum weekly benefit amounts to just 40 percent of the state’s average weekly wage of $869.
Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg and co-chair of the committee that oversees the state’s unemployment system, said he sees no reason to raise benefits for unemployed workers.
“Why would we want to follow the same pathway that made the system insolvent to begin with?” he asked. “We should be learning from the mistake of the past – and these people apparently have not.”
Rucho added that the unemployment system currently has amassed a reserve of more than $1 billion, “so there will be money available for the next recession, so that those unemployed workers will have some assistance.”
Rowe, of the Justice Center, noted that the remake of the state’s unemployment system was inspired by a $2.5 billion debt the state owed the federal government – money it had borrowed when unemployment soared during the recession – and the higher federal unemployment taxes for businesses that were triggered by the debt.
“Three years later, that debt has been repaid,” Rowe said. “The temporary federal unemployment tax increase on employers is gone. ... But the permanent cuts for unemployed workers remain.”
During the debate over the changes in 2013, Republicans also argued that it would prevent “deadbeats” from taking advantage of unemployment benefits at at the time were higher than surrounding states.
The changes implemented in 2013 included cutting the maximum amount of unemployment benefits by roughly one-third, from $535 a week to $350, and reducing the maximum weeks of benefits from 26 to a sliding sale of between 12 and 20 weeks. The weeks of benefits is pegged to the state unemployment rate and is currently 13 weeks.
“I think the folks at MillerCoors or Freightliner who are losing good-paying jobs and are going to be having a heck of a time finding something comparable aren’t going to care that the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent,” Wentworth said. “They’re going to be asking why workers in Virginia are getting 26 weeks and most of the rest of the country is getting 26 weeks.”
In recent months, MillersCoors announced plans to close its brewery in Eden that employs 520 workers and the Daimler Trucks plant in Rowan County, which makes Freightliner and Western Star trucks, said it was laying off more than 900 employees.