State Senate Leader Phil Berger has some questions about the news that MillerCoors is going to close its long-time facility in Eden, Rockingham County, laying off 520 people in the process. Last night, he and fellow Rockingham legislator Bert Jones sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights with a list of questions they urged the panel to pursue in an effort to determine whether the Eden brewery closure falls afoul of federal anti-monopoly regulations.
The Senator’s efforts are admirable given the enormously negative impact the plant’s closure would have on the rural community, which already has one of the state’s highest unemployment rates. And we sincerely hope that the brewery remains open, staving off the kind of mass layoffs that proved so disastrous to the human and economic fabric in rural communities like Kannapolis.
But after years of watching the legislature systematically dismantle the very state investments that protect jobless workers and promote community resiliency in times of high unemployment, workers in Rockingham and across North Carolina have some questions for Senator Berger as well:
- Why should Rockingham workers lose their unemployment benefits if they can’t find a job after 12 weeks ? If the brewery closes, 520 workers will lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Given that there are already twice as many unemployed workers as available job openings in Rockingham County (according to NCWorks), it will be mathematically very difficult for most these laid off workers to find new jobs. Thanks to the policies enacted by the General Assembly in 2013, Rockingham County workers will only have 12 weeks to find a job before they lose their unemployment benefits—the lowest duration offered for temporary wage replacement in the nation.
- Why should these laid off workers in Rockingham County lose food assistance after just three months if they can’t find employment in a job market without enough jobs? Since welfare reform in 1990s, the federal government has required able-bodied adults with no dependents to find a job, be engaged in skills training, or participate in other qualifying activities after three months of receiving food assistance or lose this assistance altogether. At the same time, federal law allows states to request waivers from this time limit in economically distressed counties where jobs are not available. Unfortunately, the General Assembly banned the state from offering this waiver in 2015, despite the 77 counties that qualified due to weak labor markets. In effect this move will significantly reduce access to food assistance for workers living in those counties, including Rockingham, after July 1 when the prohibition goes into effect.