RALEIGH — Republican legislators have drafted a bill that would reinstate the requirement that jobless people actively seek work in order to receive unemployment benefits.
In a March 10 executive order, Gov. Roy Cooper authorized the Department of Commerce, which houses the state unemployment agency, to waive these requirements.
The draft bill filed by legislators on Wednesday would reintroduce those requirements, exempting people who are out of work for COVID-19-related reasons.
A spokesperson for Cooper expressed hesitations about reintroducing the requirement.
"We want people safely back to work as soon as possible and work requirements can help with that. However, during this pandemic these requirements are difficult for some and we don't want to deny them benefits that help keep families afloat and stimulate our economy," press secretary Dory MacMillan said late last week in an email to The News & Observer.
The Division of Employment Security has the authority to reactivate the work search requirements, even without legislation.
Pryor Gibson, the assistant secretary of Commerce for Employment Security, said at the Wednesday legislative meeting that his office's goal is to reintroduce the work search requirement "within days, certainly within weeks."
At the very least, he said, they hope to reintroduce the work registration provision, which requires people receiving benefits to be registered with the state's job service office, NC Works.
At the same time, he expressed hesitations and declined to specify a date for reactivating the work-search requirement. He said his office had considered doing so multiple times in recent months but had not yet believed that the state had reached the point when "that 'juice' that we really want to have from having that work search requirement in is worth the pain and suffering that it's going to create for folks that are already struggling with the system."
He said this change, whenever it takes place, should be implemented for everyone.
"Separating COVID from non-COVID job loss would have so complicated our system, (which) was already overburdened," Gibson said. "Communicating those unique characteristics would have caused more confusion, more panic."
The bill proposed by legislators would make work search mandatory for people out of work for non-COVID-19 reasons but waive it for those out of work for COVID-related reasons.
Sen. Jim Perry, R-Kinston and a member of the committee, expressed his support for the bill in a phone interview with The N&O. "(Gibson) has sincerely held concerns and I appreciate them but I don't think we can let great be the enemy of good, and I think we have to make some progress on this front and give employers some hope."
Fear of returning to work
State Rep. Mark Brody, a Republican, said that on his drive to the Capitol from his home in Union County, he had noticed multiple signs advertising available jobs, including at two poultry plants in his district.
"It may be, in that light, that the COVID-era is coming closer to an end and maybe we need to step up and say, 'Let's see if we can find a way to reinstate this,'" Brody said.
Perry also cited complaints from employers who can't find enough workers to fill available jobs.
The eight-person committee has only one Democrat in its membership, Sen. Wiley Nickel, who was not present at the meeting.
"It doesn't make any sense at all to try to put a greater burden on jobless workers in the middle of a global pandemic," Nickel said in a phone interview with The News & Observer. He said he hadn't seen any data suggesting that employers were facing a worker shortage.
Nickel said the move fits into a broader pattern of Republican efforts to "make it hard for people to get access to benefits during a pandemic. ... It's just an open hostility to the fundamental program of helping people."
North Carolina provides among the least unemployment benefits in the country.
Nickel also argued that even if there were jobs available, many of his constituents are afraid to return to work with COVID-19 case numbers still high.
For example, in the meat processing industry referenced by Brody, there have been a reported 41 COVID-19 clusters resulting in 4,556 cases and 22 deaths, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Gibson also voiced concerns that people may not be ready to go back to work.
Some workers "(have) a very, very sincere and real fear of returning to a workplace because of many reasons — preexisting conditions, age of the worker, uncertainty of what all this means, fear of vaccine," Gibson said. "We have to please recognize that the worker in North Carolina that we all cherish and need — they are different now after what they've been through in this pandemic, as is everything else."