orth Carolina needs to dismantle its albatross of an unemployment system and replace it with something that actually works.
We acknowledge that the system, run through the N.C. Division of Employment Security, wasn’t built to handle hundreds of thousands of claims. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic it was handling about 3,000 claims a week.
Since March 15, well over 700,000 claims have been filed.
Far fewer have been collected.
The state’s claims system runs through the DES computer site. While the site has been upgraded and additional staff has been hired for phone bank assistance, the process remains a brick wall to many people.
Over the last few weeks, the typical odyssey has gone something like this:
Can’t access the site.
Site accessed, but crashes.
Site accessed, filer is caught in a loop.
Filer calls help line. Queue is full.
Filer calls help line, is put on hold. Sometimes the filer gives up after a few hours. Sometimes the queue kicks the filer out.
Filer successfully completes form, but has no idea if the claim is approved or not. “Pending resolution.’’
Filer attempts to call help line. See above.
Heaven forbid if the filer inadvertently has checked a wrong box.
It’s an experience to being lost in the woods, with no directions and no one to ask for help.
There are tales of North Carolinians who have sent dozens of emails pleading for help, with no response. There are tales of North Carolinians who have attempted to call the help line 20, 50, 150 times and have yet to get through.
Given all this it’s not surprising that, according to WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez, “North Carolina … has the lowest percentage of all unemployed people receiving unemployment insurance in the country.”
And for those who navigate the maze and emerge from the woods, the benefits are sparse.
Let’s roll the clock back a couple of decades.
Headed into the Great Recession of 2008-09, North Carolina hadn’t put enough money into its trust fund balance to adequately prepare for an economic downtown, especially a severe one. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, North Carolina’s balance was less than a quarter of the amount recommended by the Department of Labor.
With the wave of Great Recession job losses, the fund ran out and the state had to borrow from the federal government to cover claims, running up a debt as high as $2.8 billion.
Part of the fallout from the Recession was Democratic leadership being swept out of Raleigh. The new Republican team was determined not to let the unemployment debt build again.
But the effect of reforms was to gut unemployment payments. In 2007 around 38 percent of unemployed persons in North Carolina received unemployment payments for up to 26 weeks. By last year those numbers were 10 percent and no more than 12 weeks. Additionally, the average benefit had fallen to $277 a week from $282 in 2007.
“We effectively did not reform our unemployment insurance system in North Carolina in 2013, we effectively repealed our unemployment insurance system,” John Quinterno, principal at Chapel Hill-based economic policy firm South by North Strategies, told the Charlotte Business Journal.
And so, we find ourselves with an underfunded, overwhelmed system that seems, by design, to thwart people who are out of work through no fault of their own.
These people are running out of money, options and patience. They deserve better. At the very least, they deserve answers.
Raleigh had best be listening.