Unemployment Insurance Reform in North Carolina — Sen. Jeff Jackson

We need to reform our unemployment insurance system in NC, and we should make it an immediate priority.

The truth is, our UI system had been underfunded and neglected for almost a decade by the time the pandemic hit. It was basically a creaky old row boat that got smashed by a tsunami.

My office has spent months trying to help constituents get their UI benefits — we’re still helping some folks. In the process, we’ve heard countless stories about people calling for weeks and not being able to get through, of a website that wasn’t user-friendly enough to accommodate even savvy internet users, of a scattershot system of benefits from the state and the federal government that had to be applied for in perfect sequence or the process would restart.

Many changes have been made since then. Back in March, DES had an understaffed team working relentlessly but they were still overwhelmed by the sheer volume of claims. Now they’ve staffed up considerably, so wait times have gone way down. And we have new leadership in that department, which is important.

Now it’s less a matter of administration and more about the benefits themselves. Which means it’s on the state legislature to step up.

Independent contractors need to be eligible for UI. Under state benefits, they’re not. Under a new federal program built for this moment, they were able to draw some funds. But there’s no reason we should have to rely on a special federal program here. The gig economy is continuing to grow, and an ever-increasing share of employees are going to be independent contractors. We need a UI system that includes them.

We also need to make it easier for small businesses to rebuild and bring back their workforces. Supporting our businesses by creating a workshare program within UI will help everyone involved. The businesses stay open, folks can still work, and the state saves money. 26 other states have these programs including Kansas, Missouri and Texas. This is simple innovation that would make an enormous difference.

A lot of people are about to reach the end of their UI eligibility and won’t be allowed to extend, even if they prove they are looking for work and can’t find it. That’s the wrong answer. Being indifferent to those people is going to end up hurting a lot of families and a lot of children. If folks can show they’re looking for work and can’t find it, we shouldn’t arbitrarily cut them off. Right now, those benefits arbitrarily stop at 13 weeks, which makes us tied for the shortest UI period in the country. Now that the federal supplement has run out, we’re about to see a surge in desperate families unless we act.

And the website still needs work. It’s better than it was, but the patchwork approach isn’t ideal. We need to just rebuild it. I can’t tell you how many anxious parents I’ve heard from who are besides themselves at not being able to navigate the site, which means they have to call, which means they have to wait. In people’s most desperate times, we really owe it to them not to make things even more stressful with a clunky website.

I hate to say it, but none of this is really an accident. This system was deliberately — even *proudly* — underfunded by the current majority. It was in major need of repair even before the pandemic. Now, it’s simply urgent.

I know that lots of people reading this have never applied for UI. And maybe this doesn’t seem like a top priority to you. But let me just assure you: These people are you. I have personally spoken with hundreds of proud parents who all told me the same thing: “I never thought I would have to do this.”

In this historic moment, it really shouldn’t take that much empathy to put yourselves in their shoes. They’re thinking about their kids, the same way you would. They’re big on personal responsibility and earning their keep, just like you are. But they happen to work in an industry that has been punched right in the stomach by this pandemic, and they need help getting back on their feet. We’re really not meeting our obligation to those families right now, and we should make that a priority.

North Carolina State Senator

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