In the summer of 2014, Durham resident Anna Jensen was abruptly laid off from her job at a nonprofit. With a 4-year-degree and a Master’s, she applied for unemployment insurance to help her cover her basic living expenses while she looked for a new job. It took six weeks before she began to receive assistance, and the amount she received barely covered her rent.
“Luckily I had savings from my previous job,” she says. “Luckily I could call my parents for help. But not everyone who faces unemployment has my good luck. What about people whose jobs help them support their own parents? What about people who have kids?”
After three months of searching, Jensen found a part-time job with another nonprofit. After two years she still does not have a full-time job in her chosen field, she said at a press conference hosted by the NC Justice Center at the North Carolina History Museum in downtown Raleigh Thursday morning.
“I can definitely say the lack of support available in the state’s unemployment insurance system hampered my job search,” said Jensen. “Because the benefits were so low and the duration was so short, I felt pressured to take the first jobs offered to me instead of pursuing one comparable to the one I had before.”
In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly made changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system.
House Bill 4 decreased the maximum amount of weekly benefits (from $524 to $350) and lowered the average benefit amount (from $298 to $235), as well as cut the number of weeks unemployed workers could receive benefits.
Now, North Carolina has the second lowest unemployment insurance recipiency rate in the nation, with only 1 in 8 unemployed workers receiving benefits. The state allows the second fewest number of weeks for which unemployed workers can receive benefits—dropping from 26 weeks to just 13— with the potential to drop more as the state’s average unemployment rate dips. On both of these measures, only Florida is worse than North Carolina.
Finally, North Carolina’s average weekly benefit replaces only 27 percent of the state’s average weekly rate, landing it at 43rd in the country terms of benefit replacement rate.
As the job creation rate has grown marginally since 2013, Republican lawmakers are likely to say their strategy of cutting unemployment benefits has worked in getting people off the couch and back out into the workforce again.
But only half of all workers receiving unemployment insurance find a job by the end of their 13 weeks of benefits, and layoffs are happening all over the state. MillerCoors in Eden will lay off 500 workers by September, while the commercial truck manufacturer Freightliner in Cleveland, North Carolina laid off nearly 1,500 workers earlier this year. Unemployment is still in the double digits in several North Carolina counties.
“It sounds great to say we will tie the unemployment insurance system to the unemployment rate, but workers at Miller and Freightliner who are losing good-paying jobs are going to have a heck of a time finding something comparable,” said Dr. Wayne Vroman, an economist at the Urban Institute. “They don’t care that the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent, they’ll ask why they’re only getting 13 weeks to try to find something else while workers in Virginia get 26.”
George Wentworth of the National Employment Law Project says as a rule, state unemployment insurance programs have three primary goals.
First, states want people who involuntarily lose their jobs to be allowed some level of partial income replacement to meet their basic living expenses. Second, the benefits period should give workers a reasonable period of time to look for a new job comparable to the one they lost. And third, the goal is to keep people close to a level of earning potential they have already built up to so that they can still spend money in their local economies, avoiding foreclosures and avoiding having middle-class workers fall into poverty.
And states have more of an interest in making sure people aren’t underemployed than they do in pushing unemployed workers into the first job they can find.
“The best state unemployment insurance policies realize the state’s economy is going to benefit when workers get back on the ladder somewhere close to where they fell off,” Wentworth said. “When workers with Master’s degrees have to take part time jobs at Starbuck’s, it’s not what you want to grow your economy and your revenues on.”
The legislature’s unemployment insurance overhaul was precipitated by debt that the state owed to the federal government after borrowing money to pay for unemployment insurance benefits during the Recession. But now that debt has been paid back—and a temporary federal unemployment tax on the state’s employer’s has been eliminated—North Carolina’s unemployment insurance trust fund has been replenished and today contains nearly $1 billion.
“House Bill 4 did what business wanted,” Wentworth said. “But now the benefits program is serving 1 in 8 unemployed workers and paying out 1/3 of the benefits it provided before the Recession. It is important for North Carolina now to really start thinking about trying to restore some balance to this program, more weeks, a higher maximum weekly benefit amount, and to look at the way benefits are calculated.”
Bill Rowe, the NC Justice Center’s general counsel and director of advocacy says the Republican leadership has been receptive to revising the state’s unemployment insurance system, but that it likely won’t happen until 2017.
Meanwhile, people in the state who would gladly work forty hours a week rather than stay at home on the couch are suffering, as Jensen, the nonprofit professional, noted.
“My story is just one of thousands from across the state and my experience was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how these things are harming people,” she said.