Commentary, COVID-19, News

Lawmakers, workers, advocates call for NC to rebuild its unemployment system

Rep. Vernetta Alston

Sen. Wiley Nickel

Rep. Yvonne Holley

North Carolina lawmakers, workers, and advocates gathered for a virtual press conference yesterday to call for the General Assembly to move forward with changes to North Carolina’s unemployment insurance (UI) system. Even before the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis, North Carolina long provided the worst UI in the nation, offering too little in benefits for too short a duration to too few people who needed it.

“More than 1 million North Carolinians, including many of our friends and neighbors, have joined the ranks of the unemployed,” said Representative Vernetta Alston, one of the primary sponsors for House Bill 1075, which aims to modify the state UI system. “Despite that, we have done very little in the NC General Assembly to do more for them and to do more for all our workers.”

Changes made in 2013 broke North Carolina’s UI system, which helps people stay connected to the labor market and provides workers a portion of the lost wages from the unprecedented job loss due to COVID-19.

“North Carolina lawmakers waged a war on the ability of working families to survive any kind of crisis, let alone a global crisis,” Rep. Alston said. “Workers are suffering, the unemployed are suffering, and bad policy led us here… I believe together we can salvage our economy and support our workers at the same time but we have to act quickly.”

UI can strengthen and sustain the state’s recovery from this downturn but only if lawmakers reverse the 2013 changes, ensuring workers can access the system and have adequate wage replacement while the economy recovers. Rep. Alston said HB1075/SB792 is a step in the right direction.

Corey Hill, President of UAW Local 3520, represents workers at the Freightliner truck manufacturing plant in Cleveland, North Carolina. He has been speaking out on unemployment insurance since lawmakers made changes to the system in 2013.

“It took a pandemic to get us here today to get in front of people and talk about this,” Hill said. I’ve been talking about this since 2013 because of the effect it had on my community.”

Lawmakers need to act today, Hill said, not just for those who need benefits and their families but their communities as well.

“It’s never too late to do what’s right for the working class people in North Carolina,” Hill said. “We’re better than this. We need to take care of the people who put in labor every day… people who make this economy run. They’re the ones we’re neglecting for not acting on this bill.”

Senator Wiley Nickel, a primary sponsor on SB792, said North Carolina started the year with the worst system in the country in terms of maximum weekly benefits, duration of benefits, and a program that is intentionally hard to access. Nickel worked with members of the NC Senate to raise the weekly maximum benefit but the provision was blocked in the NC House.

“We can afford to raise the weekly maximum benefit to help jobless workers,” said Nickel, who said North Carolina started the year with $4 billion in the state’s rainy day unemployment fund. “We have the money, we just need to political will to make these changes.”

Federal UI programs are set to expire at the end of July and December, leaving workers and businesses across the state with an inadequate system to stabilize the economy through to a full recovery, particularly given the potential for a second wave of the virus in the fall.

“People who need UI the most are out there doing the daily grind to make it so those of us in the NCGA don’t have to go in,” said Representative Yvonne Holley, another sponsor of HB1075. “We’re going to have a major crisis in North Carolina and in America when unemployment runs out… and people are being put out, evicted, hungry, and jobless.”

Rep. Holley urged lawmakers to pass the legislation to extend benefits until the job market picks up.

“Our workers and the economy are at risk,” Rep. Alston said in closing. “We can’t continue to rely on a system that isn’t working, that ranks last in the country. We’re in a position… to put the lives and safety of our workers first and pave the way for a stronger economy in the future.”

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