RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The General Assembly concluded its session Friday without approving a proposal to increase weekly unemployment benefits.
Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) announced a plan in April to increase the maximum payment people can receive each week from $350 to $400 beginning in August. In late July, people who are unemployed will stop receiving an additional $600 per week from the federal government.
House leaders took that provision out of the COVID-19 relief bill that passed in early May and did not act on it by the end of the legislative session.
“We don’t know how solvent the fund will be. We now have a record number of people on unemployment,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R). “If you do that you’re going to draw the fund down and then when you draw the fund down, that’s going to trigger a tax increase. We don’t want to see taxes go up during this time, so that’s why we’re holding on to it right now.”
When the pandemic began, the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund had about $4 billion in it.
In 2013, the legislature voted to cut unemployment benefits, implementing the $350 weekly maximum, which people can receive for 12 to 20 weeks.
“Given the fact that we continue to see unemployment rates increase, we need to increase our unemployment benefits. We have one of the lowest unemployment benefit rates that we pay in the country,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake County).
Ashely Hawkins was at the General Assembly when that vote happened urging lawmakers not to make the cuts. She’s a stagehand in Charlotte and is now unemployed.
“It’s morally egregious that the state assembly has not done more for workers in North Carolina,” she said. “We’ve been paying into that safety net our entire working lives, and it’s morally reprehensible that our state legislature would just do nothing for hundreds of thousands of people… so many wage earners live on the edge.”
Congress could vote to extend the federal unemployment benefit past the end of July, but it’s not clear if that will happen or how much that would be.
“We don’t think it’s a prudent time to do that just yet until we know exactly how this is going to go,” said Moore, adding that lawmakers could revisit the issue when they return to Raleigh later this year.
As of Friday, the North Carolina Division of Employment Security reported nearly 1.1 million people in the state have filed for unemployment benefits since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In May, people who exhausted their state unemployment benefits began to be able to apply for the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which was created though the CARES Act, and pays people for up to 13 additional weeks.