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. Read more

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

Controversial UNC Wilmington professor Mike Adams retiring after offensive tweets

Mike Adams (UNCW)

Controversial UNC-Wilmington Professor Mike Adams will retire from his position at the school Aug. 1, the university announced Monday.

Adams, a conservative firebrand who has spent much of his career at UNCW publicly feuding with the school, students and fellow faculty, has been at the center of a controversy about a Twitter comment he made in late May.

The tweet criticized Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, compared public health precautions to living in the “slave state of North Carolina” and referred to the governor  as “Massa Cooper,” in a mock-slave dialect.

The controversy, the latest in a long history for Adams, led a large number of students, staff, faculty, alumni and financial contributors to the school to call for his resignation or firing.

Adams responded on social media, telling those contacting the university to leave their addresses so he could send them “panty liners.”

The university’s Monday statement on Adams:

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

WATCH: Chief Justice Beasley delivers virtual State of the Judiciary address

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley delivered the 2020 State of the Judiciary address Friday online.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley virtually delivered the 2020 State of the Judiciary address today during the North Carolina Bar Association’s Annual Meeting.

The meeting was held online to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Beasley’s address focused on the judicial branch’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the modernization of the courts through the eCourts initiative and a commitment to access to justice, fairness and impartiality.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges that the modern judiciary and our courts have never before faced, and calls for racial justice have gripped the nation’s attention,” Beasley said. “But challenging times also present opportunities. COVID-19 has required us to think creatively about improving the administration of justice in ways that even a year ago seemed impossible. The demonstrations happening in North Carolina and across the nation have given us the opportunity to confront disparities in our justice system and ensure that the people of this state have trust and confidence that courts are a place where every case is decided based on principles of law and justice free from bias.

“And so, while this is truly an unprecedented and stressful time for our entire Judicial Branch and for the Bar, it is also an immensely hopeful time.”

Beasley is the North Carolina Supreme Court’s first Black female Chief Justice. She was appointed to the helm by Gov. Roy Cooper over a year ago after former Chief Justice Mark Martin resigned. Watch her full address below.


Black deaths due to COVID-19 reveal health, economic disparities

The disproportionate percentage of Black deaths in North Carolina due to the coronavirus shines a troubling light on the health and economic disparities between Whites and African American, says state leaders attending a tele-town meeting Wednesday sponsored by the grassroots advocacy organization, Action NC.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed education and housing disparities to the forefront, said Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin.

“Those areas that we know disparities exist are really highlighted at times like this because the first people who are laid off from jobs are those laborers who work by the day, so they’ve been severely impacted by COVID-19,” Colvin said.

He said government must do its part to mitigate the harm.

“We have to embrace that and we have to look within our governmental agencies to find out how we can try to balance the scales,” Colvin said.

There have been 1,290 deaths in North Carolina due to the coronavirus. Blacks are roughly 22 percent of the state’s population but account for 25% of the state’s cases of coronavirus and 37 percent of deaths.

Blacks and Hispanics make up a large share of the state’s frontline workforce, holding many of the essential jobs that cannot be performed from home. As a result, they are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

Conference attendees called on Congress to quickly adopt legislation to increase access to healthcare and to approve a second stimulus package to mitigate the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think any of us could have imagined at the beginning of March that at the beginning of July we would be in this state,” said Naomi Randolph-Hwesuhunu, a senior adviser at Action NC and the event’s moderator. “This pandemic has been unpredictable and it’s impacted every segment of our lives, from education to employment, to health care, to our personal well-being, to our mental health.”

Randolph-Hwesuhunu asked participants to call members of Congress, particularly Republican Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, to encourage them to support the HEROES Act that would provide another round of federal COVID-19 relief money, including $1,200 stimulus checks.

“The Heroes Act has money for all of the things you’ve heard about this evening when you think about economic development, as we think about supporting businesses, as we think about sustainable and affordable housing, as we think about all of the things we need to move through this season, we want to make sure the HEROES Act gets passed,” Randolph-Hwesuhunu said

Expanding on Colvin’s comments about chronic health conditions among Black and Hispanics, Michelle Laws, assistant director for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, said “historically marginalized” populations suffer at higher rates from chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and pulmonary disease that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

Tarsha Gunn, who suffers from congestive heart failure, falls into the Medicaid gap.

She urged lawmakers to send help to the millions of Americans who have lost jobs and access to healthcare during the pandemic.

“As you are making bills, please remember that we’re human and we need the help,” said Gunn. “It’s not that we just want the help. We need the help.”

Gunn also encouraged voters to educate themselves about candidates before voting in the November election.

“We need to show up mighty strong and true and vote for these elected officials so that we can see change,” Gunn said.

State Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat who represents several counties in Eastern North Carolina, noted that two of the six rural counties that she serves made national lists for high infection rates.

“One of them does not have a local hospital, so they [citizens] have to drive to other counties to access health care,” Smith said.

She noted that on Wednesday the Senate approved House Bill 1023 to appropriate $2 billion in federal relief money to increase testing as cases of COVID-19 surge and to address the economic harm caused by the virus.

“We have a difficult task as we look to protect public health,” Smith said. “We also want to balance [that] with reopening the economy in the most effective way for businesses and workers.”

COVID-19, News

Gov. Cooper orders statewide mask mandate, pauses reopening for three weeks

A day after Dr. Anthony Fauci warned of an “insidious increase in community spread” of the coronavirus, Governor Roy Cooper put the brakes on moving to the next phase of reopening and ordered a statewide mask mandate.

North Carolina has been in Phase Two since May 22, and this was the week that many bar owners and gym owners had hoped to hear their businesses would be next in line to open their doors.

But the governor told reporters Wednesday that key metrics do not support an easing of restrictions.

“Daily case counts have gone up. The percent of tests returning positive has stayed high,” explained Cooper. “Since May 19th the number of people hospitalized has increased 56 percent.”

The governor said requiring face coverings will cause zero harm, and could determine whether schools will be ready to reopen in just a few weeks.

The highly-anticipated announcement came with strong support from the medical community.

NCNA President Dennis Taylor

“The North Carolina Nurses Association endorses and fully supports the wearing of face coverings, social distancing, and frequent hand hygiene,” said NCNA President Dennis Taylor.

“Please trust this advice. It is not political. It is not an exaggeration.”

Atrium Health’s President and CEO Gene Woods said business partners including the Carolina Panthers, Bank of America, Lowes and Blue Cross Blue Shield are teaming up to donate one million masks to those in need.

“Medical science says to reduce the spread of COVID-19 masking works, and my sincere hope is that all the people of North Carolina can join forces to make wearing a mask not something we feel we have to do – but something that we want to do to keep each other, our neighbors, our children and our loved ones healthy and safe,” said Woods.

Several local municipalities have already implemented mask ordinances, including Raleigh, Knightdale, Southport, Greensboro with  Winston-Salem making plans to act.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles took to social media Monday appealing to the governor to make facial coverings mandatory statewide:

Law enforcement can cite a business for failing to enforce the new mask policy, and an individual could face trespassing charges for refusing to wear a mask in a business after being asked to do so.

Roughly eight percent of North Carolina’s COVID tests have come back positive this week.

The data also shows 81 percent of the inpatient hospital beds and 77 percent of the ICU beds are in use, and state health officials remain concerned that a surge could overwhelm the system.

Gov. Cooper said if the numbers show improvement, the state could allow fitness centers, parks and playgrounds to re-open around July 17th.

Recent modeling by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projects that North Carolina will record 2,782 deaths from COVID-19 by October 1st if no changes are made. That would be more than double the 1,271 deaths from COVID the state has recorded since March.