N.C. struggles to get jobless claims paid on time

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North Carolina is a lousy place to be unemployed. That’s quickly becoming a reality of the pandemic with the N.C. Division of Employment Security embattled after nearly 475,000 N.C. residents filed unemployment insurance claims between March 16 and April 7.

Like many states, North Carolina’s claims department is struggling with the unprecedented demand for unemployment assistance sparked by the rapid shutdown of significant parts of the economy. Applicants report waiting on hold for hours while trying to reach the state office.

But the sad truth is that North Carolina’s division has been among the nation’s worst in making timely payments for many years, long before the coronavirus. The Carolina Journal news publication made the point this week, citing U.S. Department of Labor data that confirms that it takes much longer for the jobless to receive any compensation here than most U.S. states.

For example, in the first quarter of 2020, North Carolina paid 67% of first payments in a timely manner, versus a national average of 86.5%. Federal policy calls for payments to be distributed within 14 days of filing. In North Carolina, the unemployed are usually required to wait a week after losing their job before applying, though Gov. Roy Cooper has waived that rule during the COVID-19 crisis.

Lockhart Taylor, the assistant secretary for Employment Security for the N.C. Department of Commerce, told the Carolina Journal that Gov. Cooper is aware of the “timelines and quality issues.” North Carolina is adding 250 people to its call center this week to help improve the case management, Taylor told a legislative committee this week.

The problem dates to the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, who was governor from 2013-16. During those years, North Carolina provided 67.5% of first unemployment payments in a timely fashion, compared with a national average of 81.9%.

The issue hasn’t received much attention given that unemployment in the state reached multi-decade lows this year before the pandemic. Finding labor has been a much bigger issue for many N.C. employers than a lack of job opportunities.

Beyond the slow payments, North Carolina is also among the toughest states to receive unemployment benefits while providing some of the slimmest payouts. In late 2019, fewer than 9% of unemployed N.C. workers qualified to receive benefits, the smallest percentage in the U.S. Calls to the N.C. Department of Commerce to explain that statistic have not been returned.

The average jobless claim in the state averaged about $265 a week last year, among the lowest in the U.S. The maximum payout is $350 a week.

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