Roy Cooper

Gov. Roy Cooper

It wasn’t long after N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper removed barriers to unemployment insurance that the system used to process online applications couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Rep. Brian Turner, who represents the western part of Buncombe County in the North Carolina General Assembly, said thousands of requests from Western North Carolina alone were submitted.

“In advance of the executive order, [Cooper] met with commerce and the department of employment security,” Turner said. “They were scaling up their capacity in terms of web presence so they could handle the influx, but the surge was more than anyone expected.”

Turner added that some of the problem was the fact that the state website interfaces with the federal Social Security database, which may have contributed to delays. In a story from the News & Observer, Larry Parker, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Employment Security, said that 4,721 applied for unemployment due to COVID-19 as of March 19.

Cooper issued his executive order on March 17. Along with mandating that all restaurants and bars cease dine-in services, it also provided expanded access to unemployment insurance.

“I recognize this decision will cost people their jobs, so this order also brings them some relief,” Cooper said. “Today I am taking down barriers to unemployment benefits in response to this unprecedented health crisis.”

Here are the specific changes implemented by the order:

• It removes the one-week waiting period to apply for unemployment payment for those workers who lose their jobs;

• It removes the requirement that a person must be actively looking for another job during this time when many potential employers are closed and social distancing guidelines are in effect.

• It allows employees who lose their jobs or, in certain cases have their hours reduced due to COVID-19, to apply for unemployment benefits.

• It directs that employers will not be held responsible for benefits paid as a direct result of these COVID-19 claims.

• It waives the requirement that people must apply for benefits in person; workers can apply for benefits online or by phone.

Turner said that in Buncombe County, he has heard no shortage of stories of folks who found themselves suddenly out of work, and some had trouble with processing their claims.

“I had one restaurant where the entire staff had been fired, and they reached out to me because they could not apply,” he said.

Turner, who works for Beverly Hanks as a realtor, also had an additional concern, which hasn’t been discussed quite as much as some other issues related to pandemic-related financial hardships.

“I’ve been hearing from landlord and tenant clients alike asking about what kind of relief is coming,” he said. “I’ve got tenants saying, ‘I don’t know if I can pay my rent.’ I have landlords asking, ‘What happens if a tenant defaults?’ The overarching question is … at what point will the banks give relief to lessen that downstream impact?”

Some initially criticized Cooper’s executive order, including Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is also running for governor.

“His mandate will devastate our economy, shutter many small businesses, and leave many people unemployed, especially in the rural areas of our state where food supply is already critical,” he said in a release.

Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for Cooper, provided a rebuttal.

“The governor is taking action to protect the health and safety of North Carolinians and does not need concurrence,” Weiner said in a release. “The governor and the Secretary of DHHS have the authority to do this under state public health and emergency powers law.”

Forest eventually softened his stance in later interviews.

State House Speaker Tim Moore noted in a release he sent out that “a $3.9 billion Unemployment Trust Fund Balance is in place for North Carolina to draw on with emergency measures that support families hurting from the economic impact of the COVID-19 response.”

The release also notes that North Carolina also has a $1.1 billion savings reserve, a $74 million Disaster Relief Fund, and $186 million in Medicaid contingency reserves.

“North Carolina is exceptionally well-prepared to support working people who are losing income due to this emergency, with the highest unemployment reserve ratio in the Southeast,” Moore said in the release.

However, Rep. Joe Sam Queen, who represents Jackson and Swain counties, as well as part of Haywood, has other concerns. First, along with supporting Cooper’s executive order, he lamented the fact that the state’s unemployment trust fund balance is “40% of where it was a decade ago.”

“Unfortunately, in the last decade, we have undermined our unemployment insurance in North Carolina,” he said.

“Just this decade, this supermajority took the excuse of the 2010 recession to slash it,” he said of unemployment funds. “Now, we wish we hadn’t done that. I assure you 1 million North Carolinians wish unemployment benefits are what they had been.”

Queen also highlighted other decisions made — or not made — at the state level, could have made its response to this crisis more effective. Along with mentioning Republicans’ reluctance to expand Medicaid, he mentioned high-speed internet, which is quickly proving to be more vital than ever with so many people working and learning from home.

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