Gov. Roy Cooper is taking an expansive and beneficial stand for working North Carolinians in his proposed 2021-22 budget, unveiled last week. Among other proposals, it seeks to increase unemployment benefits for working people who find themselves trapped by the effects of, say, a recession — or a pandemic.
"Even before the pandemic, North Carolina had some of the shortest and stingiest unemployment benefits in the country," Cooper said last week. "Now is the time to fix this and provide a real safety net."
While 44 states provide up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, North Carolinians are only eligible for up to 12 weeks of regular state benefits (16 weeks right now because of a sliding scale put into a 2013 law). That ties us with Florida for the lowest benefits in the country.
And it's nothing to brag about.
Cooper wants the state to return to 26 weeks, and he’d like to raise the weekly maximum benefit from $350 to $500.
Even that is low, but it might pay the rent and cover groceries.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of a pandemic that has devastated our economy, eliminating many jobs permanently — and taken a toll on our collective mental health — the upside should be obvious. Raising unemployment benefits would provide peace of mind for a great many North Carolinians who are eager to return to some semblance of normalcy, but have to wait on investors and business owners to get things rolling. That can only be done when the pandemic is safely behind us.
North Carolina should be able to meet this challenge.
State unemployment claims have gone up and down during the pandemic, but the unemployment rate remains high in the Triad — 6.2% at the end of 2020, twice as high as at the end of 2019.
Some 17.8 million Americans remain on some form of unemployment assistance, according to Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com.
The $908 billion federal stimulus package signed into law by President Trump last year helped, but it’s not enough. As Congress debates President Biden’s relief package, it would be nice to know that we could turn to state authorities to help state residents.
Unemployment benefits came in handy during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when millions of American jobs disappeared overnight. Many, while struggling and waiting for the economy to recover, were still able to keep their heads above water — and hang onto their homes — thanks to their benefits.
But then, even with no jobs available, Republican legislators began complaining about “lazy people” who “didn’t want to work.” It’s a view of working people that seemed cynical and insulting.
With a super-majority in the legislature, Republicans reduced benefits in 2013 to the current level.
Everyone appreciates a day off now and then. But most working Americans, especially North Carolinians, want to work — and they want to do so safely and for a fair, sustaining salary. But when that work is scarce, when the rubber-band economy snaps back against them, they deserve to have their earned benefits kick in to help.
And when their work might endanger their lives, they deserve to be able to protect their families and wait out the storm. That’s entirely reasonable.
All legislators should support Cooper’s efforts to restore better benefits. They should also help by promoting safety measures that might bring an end to this pandemic more quickly — and help protect those who have no choice but to take the risk of going out in public to earn their daily bread.
Another way to incentivize work is to make sure it always pays an adequate salary — a subject for another day.
But Cooper’s proposal is a move in the right direction.