CDC: You can ditch the mask in most places, indoors and out, if fully vaccinated

National and state unemployment insurance data show initial claims return to pre-COVID-19 levels

The release of national weekly unemployment insurance claims data shows that initial claims for unemployment insurance (UI) are 92 percent lower than this time last year in North Carolina.

The continued decline week-over-week similarly points to the continued improvements in the labor market and the important role UI plays in ensuring jobless workers stay engaged in the labor market and looking for work.

“North Carolina’s unemployment system is the first line of defense against people leaving the labor force out of frustration that too few jobs are available,” said Alexandra Sirota, Director of the Budget& Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center. “For more than 467,000 North Carolinians our state system fell short, failing to sustain them until their job searches resulted in employment.”

New research from the Economic Policy Institute points to the critical role that federal extensions of UI eligibility and the number of weeks have had in North Carolina, as well as the heavy reliance in our state on those programs to stabilize the economy. Federal UI provided more than 80 percent of the unemployment benefits in North Carolina, which went a long way to stabilizing household budgets, local commerce, and state revenue.

In North Carolina, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which reaches those who would otherwise not be eligible for state UI, such as the self-employed or those on contracts, provided wage replacement during the week ending April 24th to more than 83,000 North Carolinians.

UI must be the foundation of the state’s work to ensure people get back to good, family-sustaining jobs. Right now, national data show that despite improvements in the number of job openings economy-wide there are still 12 workers officially counted as unemployed for just 10 job openings. Moreover, well-documented barriers—including here in North Carolina—point to the real barrier of childcare faced by a significant share of the labor force, which makes it difficult for every worker to return to their jobs.

“Unemployment Insurance is one of the most effective tools we have to support the economy to recovery,” said Bill Rowe, Deputy Director of Advocacy at the NC Justice Center. “The key is to provide adequate wage replacement for those who have lost employment until the labor market has the quantity and quality of jobs that ensure workers can go back to work.”

Julia Hawes is the Director of Communications for the N.C. Justice Center.

State audit faults oversight of $3.1 billion in coronavirus relief

State Auditor Beth Wood

The state Pandemic Recovery Office did not monitor spending of $3.1 billion in federal pandemic funds in a way that would catch misuse in a timely way, according to a state audit released Thursday.

The recovery office required recipients provide receipts and monthly spending reports with supporting documentation, the audit said. But the office did not independently verify the spending by comparing the reports to the supporting documents until November 2020, after most of the money had been spent.

Additionally, the recovery office sent out money without making sure all recipients had goals for accomplishing their objectives or ways to measure results.

In response, state budget director Charles Perusse and recovery office executive director Stephanie McGarrah said the state legislature funded the office at half the requested amount, which resulted in understaffing and a delay in full verification of recipient spending. The office established a nine-step process that balanced release of money to recipients with monitoring expenditures, they wrote. The office is adding staff in response to the audit findings.

In December, the Auditor’s Office released a report  critical of the state Department of Public Instruction’s monitoring of coronavirus relief fund spending. The audit faulted DPI oversight of the summer learning program and the school nutrition program.

The state legislature started the distributing the federal money in May 2020. Initially, federal law required it be spent by December 2020.

Thursday’s audit looked all 490 recipients of Coronavirus Relief Act money. Forty-three recipients did not report objectives, 302 of 447 reported objectives but no goals, and 57 of 145 reported objectives and goals, but had no way to measure progress, the audit said.

In their response, Perusse and McGarrah wrote that lack of staffing and funding, and the temporary nature of the recovery office contributed to the finding that performance measures “were not as robust as they could have been.”

The recovery office is set to dissolve in December.

CDC advisory panel signs off on Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for kids 12 to 15

As NC lawmakers fast-track legislation prohibiting ransomware payments, federal officials focus on pipeline shutdown, future attacks

If you have waited in line this week to buy gas for your vehicle, you should be familiar with how damaging a ransomware threat can be.

In the case of Colonial Pipeline, a weekend ransomware attack forced the company to shutdown its pipeline sparking panic-buying and concerns about future cyberattacks.

House Bill 813 introduced earlier this month would prohibit any state agency or local government from communicating with or submitting a payment to an entity that has engaged in a cybersecurity threat.

Rep. Harry Warren said the bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Saine was right on the mark.

(Saine’s home county faced a ransomeware attack in 2019 that took the sheriff’s office website offline.)

Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow)

“It also clarifies consulting and reporting requirements to the Department of Information Technology. It’s very timely,” said Warren (R-Rowan) in presenting the bill.

Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow) questioned whether the bill should include additional requirements.

“Something that struck me with our present problem with the fuel was that Colonial Pipeline never reported anything to the feds,” Cleveland said. “Would it be appropriate or beneficial to indicate in the bill that the feds should be notified of any cybersecurity problems?”

Legislative staff said private industry were encouraged to do that but not required.

House Bill 813 quickly passed the State Government and House Rules committees Wednesday, moving on to the full House.

In Washington, D.C., Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and EPA Administrator Michael Regan also addressed the current cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline.

Sec. Buttigieg said the Biden administration is actively working to reduce the impact of the gas shortage.

Waivers and emergency declarations will be used to help move fuel more easily to where it is needed.

“Ten states can use existing federal disaster declarations that are currently in place to issue permits that allow drivers to temporarily carry additional gasoline that would ordinarily exceed existing weight limits on federal highways in their states,” said Buttigieg. “This decision provides them with the added flexibility to move fuel more efficiently.”

EPA Administrator Michael Regan

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said additional waivers from his agency will allow reformulated gasoline to be used in 12 states to ease the supply shortage.

Regan, a North Carolina native, also urged the public to do their part to ease the gas crunch.

“The folks should follow the advice of the governors and attorneys general. They are asking folks not to panic, not to hoard gasoline, and to watch for updates. We’re working very hard to alleviate these circumstances,” said Regan.

Colonial Pipeline, that delivers roughly 45% of the gas to the East Coast, announced late Wednesday that it had restarted the pipeline and supply would improve in the coming days.

Buttigieg said the nation must invest in infrastructure resiliency that can withstand future cyber threats.

“This is not an extra, this is not a luxury, this is option. This has to be core to how we secure our critical infrastructure and that includes infrastructure that is not owned and operated by the federal government.”