COVID-19, News

Lawmakers shape new bills as unemployment claims top 450,000

More than 450,000 North Carolinians have filed for unemployment benefits since the COVID-19 pandemic began to devastate the state economy, lawmakers heard in a legislative committee meeting Tuesday.

Lawmakers are considering draft bills to expand access to unemployment insurance, to provide emergency assistance to workers and employers impacted by the coronavirus and waive interest for those filing taxes under an extended deadline.

Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary for employment security for the state Department of Commerce, said the overwhelming number of jobless claims dwarfs those seen in the post-2008 recession. As of Tuesday morning, there had been 405,209 filings since mid-March.

“That averages to about 21,000 claims a day for the last three weeks,” Taylor told lawmakers in a legislative committee meeting Tuesday morning. “And over the last 24 hours we’ve taken just over 22,000 claims.”

Lockhart Taylor

The state had paid out about 110,000 claims equalling $28.6 million as of Tuesday, Taylor said. The department is struggling to keep up with the demand but is expanding the number of people trained to take claims and to help filers with technical problems, he said. Those filing for benefits who state COVID-19 is the reason for their unemployment should expect payment within about 14 days, he said.

The recently passed federal stimulus package will expand benefits to people who don’t qualify under the state unemployment insurance program or who have exhausted their benefits, Taylor said. But the state just received the rules for how that will work, he said, and has been scrambling to understand them. Taylor said he would like to begin approving people who can get benefits under the federal program within two weeks but he could not give a definitive date.

One of the more complex parts of the federal program is the sheer volume of paperwork required to verify that independent contractors and self-employed people making claims worked for legitimate businesses and are being honest about their salaries, Taylor said.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to session in Raleigh on April 28. But they will likely call a special session before then, as business advocates and constituents have called for swift action.

N.C. Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln)

“It’s our intent, as the chairs of the committee, that we have legislation that is ready  to go,” said Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), co-chair of the working group. “Knowing, of course, that how we go back into session on April 28 — if not before — we’ll have to find ways to be successful at practicing social distancing and protecting ourselves and our staff.

“So if we can do as much work on the bills as possible prior to, so we can have that ready to go, that’s something we can all agree on. I think these are issues that certainly we can find consensus.”

Gregg Thompson, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, told lawmakers a recent survey of small business owners found 92 percent have been financially harmed by COVID-19. Social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have shut down businesses, like restaurants, retail stores and hair salons. Half will not survive two months under the current economic conditions, Thompson said. Another 15 percent will not last more than a month.

“Those are some sobering statistics and numbers we are dealing with, Thompson said.

Ray Starling, general counsel for the NC Chamber of Commerce, also gave a presentation that painted a stark picture for legislators. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce small business survey found one in four businesses has reported shutting down, Starling said. Another 30 percent have shortened operating hours and 17 percent have had to adjust employee hours or salaries.

Source: North Carolina Chamber of Commerce

The economic impact for businesses could be felt long after social distancing restrictions are lifted, Starling said, with uncertainty causing a lingering lack of consumer confidence and consumer spending. After a long period of easy access to credit, Starling said, private lenders are likely to be less interested in extending credit to businesses that are or have been unable to fully operate during the pandemic.

But with the help of lawmakers, Starling said, the business community is still optimistic about a post COVID-19 future.

“As a state we feel we’re in better shape than many,” Starling aid. “We have a very diverse economy with bright, caring people. If anybody is going to climb out of this quickly, it’s going to be North Carolina.”



A triple disaster: Uninsured, living far from a hospital, and sick with COVID-19


This is a disturbing scenario: The 274,000 North Carolinians who live in a county without a state-licensed hospital. Of them, the 37,700 who are uninsured. And an unknown number of these rural, uninsured residents who have COVID-19.

Seventeen counties in North Carolina lack a state-licensed hospital, which means those residents with acute symptoms of the virus must drive — or, if they are poor, elderly or have a disability, be transported, if that’s even possible — 10, 15, even 30 miles to the nearest facility. Or out of options, they might ride out the disease at home.

For routine medical care, residents in these counties rely on urgent care centers, rural health clinics and county health departments, none of which is equipped to deal with serious cases of the virus.

Ten of the 17 hospital-less counties have reported positive cases of COVID-19, although the number of cases is likely an undercount because of testing limitations. As of April 7, that total was 88, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. (Most of Northampton County’s total originated at a nursing home.) No deaths have been reported in these 17 counties from the virus.

According to state health department statistics, 354 of the state’s 3,220-plus known cases are hospitalized. However, that data is incomplete because only two-thirds of hospitals have reported their totals. Forty-six people have died.

Although most people with the virus don’t require hospitalization, those who do often have underlying medical conditions that put them at risk of dying. And rural residents, who tend to be older, poorer and geographically isolated, are also more likely to be in poor health than their urban and suburban counterparts.

Unable to financially survive, seven rural hospitals have closed in North Carolina since 2010, according to the NC Rural Health Research Program at UNC Chapel Hill. In some cases, rural hospitals are shutting down as a result of mergers; in other instances, declines in rural population mean there are fewer patients and fewer dollars. And the lack of Medicaid expansion also cuts into hospital revenue because the facilities aren’t reimbursed for services for uninsured patients.

Without Medicaid expansion, many of these rural residents have no insurance at all. According to census data, in 12 of the 17 counties without state-licensed hospitals, the percentage of uninsured residents is higher than the state average of 12.7%.

CountyPopulation (2019)Percentage under 65 without health insurance    
COVID-19, Legislature

Want to help North Carolinians left jobless because of COVID-19? Improve the state’s unemployment insurance system.

It’s an astonishing number.

Source: NCDES

More than 423,000 workers in the Tar Heel state have filed for unemployment in the last three weeks. Nearly 370,000 of those cases list COVID-19 as the reason for their loss of work.

But many are finding that the state’s unemployment insurance system is far from generous. Benefits last for a shorter period and are smaller now than before the Great Recession.

Today’s must read opinion piece comes from economic analyst John Quinterno, a principal with South by North Strategies, Ltd. in Chapel Hill.

Quinterno explains in an op-ed for Capitol Broadcasting:

John Quinterno, South by North Strategies, Ltd.

First, many individuals will discover that they simply do not qualify for regular state unemployment insurance benefits. Self-employed persons, independent contractors and “gig economy” workers generally are ineligible, while other workers will not satisfy the existing non-monetary and monetary criteria. That is especially likely for low-wage workers with erratic schedules and uneven earnings histories.

Second, those who do qualify will receive modest benefits — the maximum benefit is $350 a week — for no more than 12 weeks. Finally, successful claimants will benefit less from the expansions authorized by the federal CARES Act.

For workers who qualify for unemployment insurance, the CARES Act allows them to draw their regular payment plus a $600-per-week supplement; for the average claimant in North Carolina, that should yield a benefit of about $877 a week, with the maximum benefit reaching $950 a week. The CARES Act also extends benefits for 13 weeks beyond the normal maximum benefit period. Yet since North Carolina currently caps duration at 12 weeks, as opposed to the 26 weeks standard in most other states, an unemployed Tar Heel will receive no more than 25 weeks of benefits instead of the 39 weeks available most elsewhere.

In short, unemployed North Carolinians lucky enough to qualify for insurance will receive far less for far shorter periods than their counterparts in much of the country.

A positive aspect of the CARES Act is that it temporarily allows for people normally ineligible for unemployment insurance, such as the self-employed, independent contractors, and “gig economy” workers, to draw benefits and a $600-per-week supplement. Should such workers qualify, they still will receive less in North Carolina than in other states due to the current 12-week cap on duration and the low average weekly payment amount. (At a minimum, these workers will receive $734 a week.)

Recently, Gov. Roy Cooper has used executive authority to implement positive reforms, such as waving the waiting week required before a first check is sent to eligible claimants, suspending work search requirements, and certifying that payments will not be charged back to employers. Those steps will preserve eligibility for people and enable the state to claim as much as $30 million in federal funds to help administer the surge of claims in a timely manner.

Legislative action ultimately will be needed if the unemployment insurance system is to meet the COVID-19 crisis.

  • Eligibility criteria should be loosened to make the system more responsive to the needs of an increasingly low-wage, part-time, and contingent labor force.
  • Benefit formulas and amounts must be redesigned to provide adequate wage replacement that grows with the economy
  • North Carolina also should restore maximum benefit duration to 26 weeks, as is standard in most states.
  • Finally, the state should strengthen its mechanism for handling partial claims and establish a work-sharing program.

The COVID-19 crisis has confronted North Carolina’s unemployment insurance system with a moment of truth. It is time to admit that the 2013 “reform” was an ideologically inspired effort to effectively eliminate unemployment insurance. Absent change, the system will prove incapable of providing meaningful assistance on a scale commensurate with the wave of joblessness sweeping across the state alongside the coronavirus.

Read Quinterno’s full column here.

COVID-19, News

NC prisons will ‘shelter in place’ to combat COVID-19; agency not tracking staff cases

To combat the spread of COVID-19, the North Carolina Division of Prisons will stop accepting incarcerated people from county jails into its facilities and will dramatically reduce transfers within the system for 14 days starting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“We must deny this virus the opportunity to spread,” said Todd Ishee, commissioner of prisons. “It has gotten into three of our prisons and we must contain it there to the greatest degree possible. This is imperative for the health and safety of our staff and the men and women who are in our care.”

The plan is in effect a “stay at home order” but for incarcerated people, and it is supported by the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association. The order will apply to the majority of the 34,400 incarcerated people in the state prison system. It is valid from April 7 to 21, at which point the plan will be reassessed, according to a news release.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Division of Prisons, is reporting seven incarcerated people who have tested positive for COVID-19; they are in Johnston, Caledonia and Neuse correctional institutions. Over the weekend, face masks were distributed to all staff and offenders at those prisons, according to DPS.

DPS spokesman John Bull said Monday that the agency cannot and will have an accurate count of the number of staff who have self-reported testing positive for COVID-19.

“These tests are done in consultation with their primary care physicians and they do not have to tell us the results,” he added.

Bull did not immediately respond to follow-up questions, including about how DPS will ensure that anyone else (incarcerated or not) in direct contact with a sick staffer is tested — as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends — if they don’t report it.

The 14-day moratorium on the acceptance of new people from the county jails, and the suspension of the vast majority of offender transportation between the prisons, is in keeping with the spirit of the CDC’s guidance to the country to shelter in place, according to the news release.

Incarcerated people will continue to be transferred over the next two weeks for several reasons:

• To comply with court orders;
• For medical or mental health reasons;
• For security purposes to address critical incidents within the prisons;
• To release offenders who have completed their prison sentences.

Efforts are also underway to transfer incarcerated people who are scheduled for release over the next two weeks to areas close to their homes. There, they will be released in accordance with their individual release plans, according to DPS. No incarcerated person will remain in detention past their scheduled release date.

Correction Enterprises is producing face shields, hospital-style gowns and washable face masks. All staff and every incarcerated person will get a face mask once enough are manufactured, according to DPS. The entity is also producing large quantities of alcohol-free sanitizer and hand lotion to be used in all the prisons.

For the past month, incarcerated people throughout the prison system with fevers, coughs and symptoms of respiratory illness have been isolated in the prisons from the prison general population. Testing for COVID-19 is being done per CDC recommendations. The results are usually obtained within 48 hours, according to DPS.


Social distancing policies might need extended past April to ensure hospital bed supply

If North Carolina’s social distancing policies end this month as scheduled, there is a 50% chance that hospitals statewide could not handle the number of patients infected with COVID-19.

That is the conclusion of statistical modeling conducted by university and government researchers and released today.

“To save lives we need to make sure we flatten the curve,” said Dr. Pia D.M. MacDonald, senior director and senior epidemiologist with RTI International, based in Research Triangle Park. “The more social distancing, the more lives can be saved.”

Nearly 3,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in North Carolina, although because of testing limitations  that is most certainly a vast undercount. About 270 people are hospitalized; 33 others have died from the virus.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order expires April 29. That order prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people and has closed all businesses except those considered essential, such as pharmacies and groceries.

The researchers emphasized that they aren’t recommending a specific policy; nor are they suggesting the stay-at-home order remain in effect indefinitely. Yet they did underscore that  social distancing, as it’s currently implemented, would help ensure the state’s hospital system isn’t overwhelmed over the next three months as a result of the pandemic.

The conclusions are based on a composite of several models that are specific to North Carolina. These models considered two scenarios: one that assumed social distancing remains in effect — and that people comply with the order — after April 29; and the second that all restrictions would be lifted after that time.

If social distancing remains in effect, the probability of a bed shortage, for both acute cases and the most severe requiring intensive care, is just 22% through June, said Dr. Aaron McKethan, an adjunct professor at the Duke University School of Medicine. If social distancing is lifted, the probability rises to 50%.

“We all want to get this pandemic behind us and get back to work,” McKethan said. “We want to keep policy officials informed as much as possible,” when weighing the costs to the economy and public health.

The models don’t examine local hotspots or regional differences in the number of available hospital beds and ventilators. Researchers said they plan to delve into that data soon.

The three models disagree on the timing of peak in demand for hospital beds if social distance policies are relaxed. Some models predict the peak would occur in May, others in June or July. “All models agree that we have a shortage,” said Dr. Mark Holmes, professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill. “The question is when.”

A University of Washington model released this morning was more optimistic. Those researchers now predict 500 people in North Carolina would die from COVID-19, down from 2,400 originally forecast.

North Carolina researchers had received that report shortly before the media call and said they hadn’t yet analyzed it. However, McDonald said North Carolina’s models accounted for the state’s ” unique attributes and are more granular than what you see out of the University of Washington.”

State officials have not announced how today’s findings could influence the governor’s stay-at-home order or state and local social distancing policies. The NC Department of Health and Humans Services and other state agencies have scheduled another briefing today at 4 p.m.