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Unemployment cliff could be reversed, if state Leg wills it

Though unlikely to happen, the North Carolina legislature could reverse an unemployment insurance cutoff that affected 70,000 people earlier this month.

An estimated $780 million in federal money set aside to pay extended benefits for long-term unemployed workers was rejected by North Carolina lawmakers earlier this year when the state opted to overhaul its unemployment system. The changes sought in the initial legislation included reductions in how long and how much people as well as a modest increase in what businesses are required to pay into the system.

Those changes and a July 1 start date for the new system made the state ineligible to receive the federal funds, the only state to turn down the funds.

To restore the federal money, state leaders would need to reach out the federal Department of Labor and renew an agreement about the extended benefits, according to Michael A’quino, a federal labor department spokesman.

“The Department would be open to talking through options with the state that restores the EUC program for their residents,” A’quino wrote in a statement.

But that doesn’t seem likely with no apparent support from Republicans in legislative leadership roles.

On Tuesday night, the Senate approved several technical changes to the the new unemployment system but rejected proposals made by several Democratic senators last night to  push back the changes to Jan. 1 and allow the federal benefits to flow through to unemployed workers (Video of last night’s debate is up over at Raleigh television station WRAL [1], discussion begins around the 19 minute mark [1].)

“We are the only state in the country that has put ourselves in a position that we don’t qualify for those benefits,” said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat pushing to reinstate the benefits.

But supporters of the changes argued that the unemployment system was in desperate need of reform and delaying the implementation of the new system would harm businesses owners and offer too much of a cushion to jobless workers.

Tuesday's Senate vote breakdown to make technical changes to unemployment bill but not restore benefits.  Source: WRAL steaming video. [2]

Tuesday’s Senate vote breakdown to make technical changes to unemployment bill but not restore benefits.
Source: WRAL steaming video.

“You have people that want to ride the system out until it ends,” said state Sen. Harry Brown [3], a Republican from Jacksonville. “They’d rather just live off the system than get a job.”

Several Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in voting (37 to 11) to move forward with technical changes to the unemployment bill [4] without extending the federal benefits.

Robin Hewitt, an unemployed woman from Fuquay-Varina, rejects the notion that she milked the system and said she’s been left destitute since her benefits stopped on July 1.

Hewitt lost a $50,000 annual salary job in a company’s accounts payable department in April 2012 and has been unable to find replacement work. Since then, she and  her 77-year-old mother have moved out of a Fuquay-Varina rental home and lived out of their cars for several days this month before moving in with a relative in South Carolina.

Hewitt expects her car to be repossessed any day, after falling behind on car payments.

While living out of their cars, the mother and daughter showered in outdoor showers and used library restrooms to keep themselves presentable, Hewitt said. Nights were spent in Wal-Mart parking lots.

She said she’s applied for hundreds of jobs in both Carolinas, but without any offers.

“At this point, it’s not even about recouping my old life,” Hewitt said. “It’s just about making a life again and having something to fall back on.”

Hewitt said she tries to remain optimistic that she’ll be able to rebuild her life once she finds a job. But she’s been unable so far to find anyone to hire her.

“There’s no one else to help us,” she said.