WASHINGTON, D.C. — If passed next year, a bill to extend federal emergency unemployment benefits to long-term unemployed nationwide could also reinstate North Carolina’s eligibility for those funds.
When the state General Assembly cut the maximum weekly payment available through unemployment insurance, federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation payments to the long-term unemployed ceased, as the federal law providing for those benefits required that states maintain their existing benefit structure.
As North Carolina was thereby rendered ineligible for federal emergency unemployment, more than 65,000 people receiving those benefits were cut off on July 1, some 350 of them in Scotland County.
An extension of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, including an amendment inserted by Sen. Kay Hagan providing a one-time exemption for any state, is expected to come before the Senate again in January after being blocked this week.
“People in North Carolina need to understand that our federal taxpayer dollars that are collected in North Carolina are now being used for unemployment benefits for the other 49 states,” Hagan said in a press conference Thursday.
In a letter dated Dec. 6, Hagan asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Finance Committee Chairman Max Bauchus to include reinstatement of North Carolina’s eligibility for emergency unemployment benefits as part of any law extending the program past Dec. 31.
The one-year extension would cost about $26 billion, including reinstatement of coverage to North Carolina. The program provides for an additional 20 weeks of unemployment benefits beyond the payments provided by state programs.
In October, the statewide unemployment rate was eight percent. Scotland County’s unemployment rate that month was 14.4 percent.
Though Republicans in the state legislature have criticized Hagan for not “grandfathering” North Carolina in under the federal law and enabling the General Assembly to cut the state unemployment insurance program without imperiling federal emergency benefits, Hagan places the blame squarely on state lawmakers.
“If they had put in their formula a December 31 deadline instead of a July 1 deadline, people in North Carolina would have had access to the emergency unemployment insurance,” she said.
State Rep. Garland Pierce, a Wagram Democrat, applauded Hagan’s efforts, but expressed skepticism regarding the likelihood of extending emergency unemployment benefits nationwide, citing antipathy in the General Assembly toward federal intervention.
“I commend her for making the attempt to keep the issue at the forefront of our state, because it’s an issue that we need to be talking about,” Pierce said. “At best I think it’s a long shot.”
The state cuts were made to enable $2.5 billion in annual savings and to allow the state to repay federal debt incurred when it borrowed money in the past to fund jobless benefits.
“Many say businesses will be hurt [if unemployment benefits are reinstated], but we’re at a toss-up,” said Pierce. “People in North Carolina are being affected by being unable to receive benefits that the federal government may be perfectly willing to do. We’re kicking a can down the road, but that can is North Carolinians who have lost jobs through no fault of their own.”