NC lawmakers grapple with how to address unemployment, economy, schools and healthcare amid COVID-19 outbreak

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – “CAUTION DO NOT ENTER” reads the tape covering the doors where state lawmakers held their first meeting Wednesday on how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

Because of social distancing, most lawmakers attended via video conference.

Members of the press and the public who attended were allowed to enter the room and remained several feet apart as state leaders began the process of figuring out what steps to take to address the state’s economy, schools, health care and a wide variety of aspects of our lives impacted by the pandemic.

“We know we need to help those folks who have lost their jobs, hard-working North Carolinians who through no fault of their own now are out of work,” said House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore (R).

Wednesday’s meeting focused mostly on unemployment.

Since the beginning of last week, 166,172 people have filed for unemployment benefits in North Carolina, with 87 percent of those people citing COVID-19 as the reason, according to the N.C. Division of Employment Security.

On Wednesday, state Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake County) urged lawmakers to return to Raleigh as soon as possible for a special session, noting the need for the state to act once Congress passes its own bill addressing the economic impacts of the pandemic.

“We have to make immediate changes or North Carolinians will miss out on a lot of that money,” said Nickel.

Nickel noted on average a person receives $277 per week for 8.7 weeks in North Carolina compared to the national average of about $378 per week for 14.8 weeks.

In North Carolina, people who qualify for unemployment benefits can receive a maximum of $350 per week for between 12 and 20 weeks.

The Republican-led legislature voted in 2013 to reduce both the maximum weekly benefit and the number of weeks people are eligible. At the time, lawmakers said they needed to repay debt to the federal government as a result of the previous recession.

Now, North Carolina’s unemployment insurance trust fund is at about $3.9 billion.

“I think it’s important to stress really where we are as a state financially right now, with the strong reserves we have,” said Speaker Moore.

He said it’s possible the legislature could make changes to the amount and duration of benefits depending on how long the crisis lasts.

“In terms of time limits and those sorts of things, we need to look at it. We need to assess where we’re going to be. If this is a longer-standing issue, if there’s going to be high unemployment due to this, certainly we need to look at some of those things,” he said.

It’s not clear when the legislature will reconvene in Raleigh to vote. Moore said leaders are discussing how to do that while also recognizing the need for social distancing.

Among the options, Speaker Moore suggested lengthening the amount of time lawmakers have to vote. Typically, when a bill is up for a vote, legislators have 15 seconds to lock in their votes, meaning they would all need to be there at the same time. Moore said potentially they could open up the voting window to allow people to enter in smaller groups to cast their votes.

“We’re looking at a way maybe they can appear or participate electronically, but there are questions about that being constitutional. And we’re, frankly, working through that right now,” Moore said.

The House is also setting up cameras in the chamber to broadcast sessions. “All of our House sessions from here on out are going to be broadcast live,” said Moore.

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