COVID-19, News

New leader at troubled Division of Employment Security as pandemic unemployment surges

Pryor Gibson

Lockhart Taylor is out as the state’s Assistant Secretary for the Division of Employment Security (DES), Secretary of Commerce Tony Copeland announced Wednesday.

Pryor Gibson, a former N.C. House member and senior advisor to Gov. Bev Perdue, will replace Taylor this week. Taylor will be assigned to other duties at the Department of Commerce.

“Pryor Gibson is a forceful presence to lead DES during this unprecedented economic stress,” Copeland said in a statement Wednesday.

The Division of Employment Security has been overwhelmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, recording nearly 950,000 unemployment claims since March 15. On Monday alone, the department recorded 10,795 claims filed. The department has faced criticism for slow responses, with many in the state reporting confusing and frustrating processes for being approved for benefits during the pandemic.

Gibson has previous experience at commerce, having previously served as director of Business Service at the Division of Workforce Solutions. He has also served as Director of Hometown Strong, Gov. Roy Cooper’s  initiative to stimulate the economies of the state’s rural areas.

A native of Anson County, Gibsone served in the N.C. House from 1991 to 2013, representing District 69 (Anson, Montgomery, Stanly and Union counties). He resigned his seat to serve Gov. Bev Perdue as a senior advisor and lobbyist at the General Assembly.

“It is always an honor to serve the people of North Carolina,” Gibson said in a statement Wednesday . “And I am ready to take on the challenges at DES helping people get back on their feet and back in the economy.”

The change at DES was met with praise online, where some state lawmakers said it was overdue.

Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg Democrat who has been critical of the department’s failings in recent weeks, took to Twitter to comment on the leadership shift.

“Too many people have been waiting for too long for relief,” he said.

Jackson suggested the problems at the department have been due to both an overwhelmed system never built for this volume of claims and incompetence in leadership.

 

COVID-19, public health

As state nears 25,000 COVID-19 cases, rural NC infection rates are the highest

On Monday, North Carolina reported 24,000 positive COVID-19 cases. Twenty percent of those infections are in the state’s two most populous counties, Mecklenburg (3,403) and Wake (1,478). The country and the state have focused a lot of attention on the virus’s rapid spread in population-dense and urban spaces. This framing, coupled with an initial lack of testing, has created the perception that rural North Carolina has not experienced COVID-19 like the rest of the country.

This is untrue.

In the North Carolina context, it appears that the rural counties have been harder hit. By examining COVID-19 infection and death rates instead of solely infection and death counts, one is able to scale impact relative to county population.  Once viewed through this context, the conclusions change.

The state rate of COVID-19 infections is 229 per 100,000, while the crude death rate is 7.5 per 100,000. Counties classified as rural by the NC Rural Center’s methodology show an infection rate of 257 per 100,000 and a death rate of 8 per 100,000. For comparisons sake, urban/ suburban counties have an infection rate of 204 per 100,000 and a death rate of 7 per 100,000.[1]

While these rate differences are not extreme, several hot spots in rural North Carolina are cause for concern. Duplin and Wayne counties lead the state with 1,121 and 837 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.

In terms of crude death rate (deaths per 100,000), Northampton and Vance counties lead the state with 62 and 40 deaths per 100,000, respectively.

These are all rural counties, but the trend does not stop there.[2] The 15 counties with the highest COVID-19 infection rate are rural, and 18 of 20 counties with the highest COVID-19 death rates are also designated as rural.[3]

There are several reasons that rural North Carolina is ill-positioned to respond to a pandemic. After North Carolina refused to expand Medicaid, seven rural hospitals closed, leaving 17 counties without a state-licensed facility.[4]

These same rural counties generally have higher rates of uninsured, making it less likely that people get treated for any disease, let alone COVID-19. Duplin, Greene, Swain, Sampson, Graham and Robeson counties lead the state in the percentage of county population uninsured, further complicating efforts to reduce the cases and spread of COVID-19 infections.[5]

A potential contributor to NC COVID-19 infections in rural North Carolina are occupational trends — how people work in community. In places where economies without a significant number of highly skilled jobs, meat processing plants offer many residents the opportunity to earn a steady income and stability. However, in a pandemic, the close nature of meat processing work creates a liability for the workers, their families and entire communities.

While one would offer caution in arguing that a scientific relationship exists between communities with meat processing plants and COVID-19 infection rates, policymakers should be aware of potential impact.

Last week, NCDHHS announced that 13 counties had meat processing plants with COVID-19 outbreaks.[6] Twelve of the 13 counties are considered rural.

After mapping these communities and the percentage of the county workforce employed in production jobs, four rural county clusters emerge as plausible connections between the concentration of meat processing plants and higher rates of infection per 100,000.

Cluster 1 — Duplin, Sampson, Wayne, Wilson, Lenoir, and Greene
Cluster 2 — Bertie, Northampton, and Halifax
Cluster 3 — Chatham and Lee
Cluster 4 — Wilkes, Surry, and Yadkin. [7]

As the number of COVID-19 cases climb toward 25,000, let us not lose focus on the particular pain rural communities in North Carolina are experiencing. All it takes is a deeper look.

William Munn is a policy analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project.

[1] Internal analysis from NCDHHS COVID-19 Dashboard data

[2] Internal analysis from NCDHHS COVID-19 Dashboard data

[3] NCDHHS Dashboard

[4] “A triple disaster: Uninsured, living far from a hospital, and sick with COVID-19”, Lisa Sorg, NC Policy Watch – https://bit.ly/2V1uTaY

[5] Small Area Health Insurance Estimates – https://www.census.gov/data-tools/demo/sahie/#/

6] “N.C. has 23 meat processing plants with COVID-19 outbreaks, more than 1,300 cases” WBTV 3 – https://www.wbtv.com/2020/05/12/nc-has-meat-processing-plants-with-covid-outbreaks-more-than-cases/

[7] Internal analysis from NCDHHS COVID-19 Dashboard data

 

COVID-19, News

As Trump sets a new deadline, Cooper says NC remains focused on protecting its people

President Donald Trump wants a guarantee within a week that the Republican National Convention will be allowed to be held in Charlotte in late August without onerous restrictions.

Trump told reporters yesterday without those assurances, he might pull the national gathering out of North Carolina.

Governor Roy Cooper appeared unmoved by the threat on Tuesday, telling reporters that he was not surprised by anything he saw on Twitter.

“It’s okay for political conventions to be political, but pandemic response cannot be.”

Gov. Cooper says his administration is waiting to hear from the Republican National Committee about what options they would like to see on the table to pull off an event that could attract as many as 50,000 people.

“These are the same conversations that we are having with the Carolina Panthers, the Charlotte Hornets, other large arena owners,”explained Cooper. “This virus is still going to be with us in August, and we’re going to have to take steps to protect people.”

The governor’s current executive order prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

While those guidelines would loosen further under the next phase of state’s reopening plan, health officials remain concerned about transmission of the virus in large crowds.

Click below to hear the governor respond to Trump’s threat to move the RNC out of North Carolina.

 

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

Voting rights advocates vow to keep fighting for fair, accessible, just election

(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Questions about what the upcoming election will look like in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have been circulating for weeks in North Carolina.

House lawmakers introduced a bipartisan measure to address some concerns about accessibility to the ballot, but later the same day, a number of voting rights organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging several of the state’s registration and voting requirements, including the witness requirement for absentee ballot signatures, limited registration period for new voters, and the lack of safe accommodations for in-person polling places.

Advocates have praised the measure, House Bill 1169, but they’ve also pointed to issues it doesn’t address, like prepaid postage for by-mail absentee ballots and contactless drop boxes where ballots could be dropped off.

Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy NC also said lawmakers haven’t been able to work in a bipartisan fashion on other important democratic issues so voters have to be vigilant. “None of us are here calling for an all-mail election,” he said, adding that there still needed to be measures in place to protect a system that was not built for a surge of absentee ballots.

Lopez and other advocates representing more than 30 national and local civil and voting rights and social justice organizations held a virtual press conference to preview a virtual day of action tomorrow. It’s expected to serve as a unify and mobilize people to assert that they will fight “from now until November” for a just democracy.

House lawmakers will discuss HB 1169 at a House Elections and Ethics Law Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The virtual day of action events begin at 2 p.m.

The #ProtectOurVoteNC Virtual Day of Action corresponds with the continuation of the General Assembly’s short session when legislators are making crucial decisions that could shape the state’s 2020 elections. Participating organizations are fighting barriers to voting imposed by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, as well those who are using a deadly pandemic for political gain and profits.

“Even through our grief, our anger, our sorrow and pain, and yes, our fears, we will stay in covenant with our long history of fighting for a representative democracy that lives up the hopes of our ancestors and ambitions of children’s greatest dreams,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman. “Our voice matters; our votes matter; our lives matter.”

“North Carolina is a testing ground for this nation,” Spearman said. “The fight over our democracy has dominated cycles and cycles of news coverage. We have won tremendous victories against bold, unapologetic efforts to silence and suppress the voices of Black voters, LatinX, the poor, women, immigrants and workers. Tomorrow we’re calling on the North Carolina General Assembly to turn the page on that chapter and commit to making North Carolina a laboratory for making our democracy the most accessible in this nation, the most free, the most fair, the most just, the most safe.”

Democracy North Carolina, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and six individual voters filed the federal lawsuit late Friday. They are represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Fair Elections Center and pro bono counsel from law firm WilmerHale in Washington, D.C. Read the full lawsuit below.



Complaint LWV Dem NC (Text)

Commentary, COVID-19

Bipartisan election reform bill is a fine first step

In a rebuke to the nonsensical rants and kooky conspiracy theories promoted by President Trump, Republicans in North Carolina have, to their credit, recently joined with Democrats to introduce bipartisan election reform legislation.

House Bill 1169 contains many provisions requested by the State Board of Elections and voting rights advocates to help the state prepare for conducting an election during the COVID-19 pandemic:

 

  • reduce the requirement for absentee mail-in ballots from two witnesses to one;
  • give counties greater flexibility as to where they assign poll workers;
  • allow voters to submit an absentee ballot request form via email, an online portal, and fax, — as well as the current methods — by mail or in person; and
  • draw down and allocate federal dollars to support election administration during the pandemic.

An on-the-money Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com put it this way:

The legislation will make it less cumbersome to cast ballots by mail – an option many voters may choose who have health concerns amid this COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, about 5% of ballots are cast by mail. Election officials say that might surge to as much as 40% this year. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a bipartisan elections bill,” said state Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, a key architect of the elections package. “It seems to be a really good basis for protecting the 2020 election.”

Rep. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover, a co-chair of the House Elections Committee and a sponsor of the bill, said it will give election officials on the local and state level “the flexibility and resources needed to accommodate the expected increase in absentee ballot requests due to the pandemic.”

The bill still needs improvement, but as Bob Phillips of the good government group Common Cause observed, it is “a positive step toward ensuring every eligible North Carolina voter is able to safely and securely cast a ballot in this year’s elections.”

The sponsors from both political parties deserve our thanks. Let’s hope the bill moves swiftly and productively through the General Assembly.