RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — State officials overseeing North Carolina’s unemployment benefits say they could reinstate the requirement that people receiving those benefits also look for work in a matter of weeks, though a precise date is uncertain.

North Carolina Division of Employment Security Assistant Secretary Pryor Gibson recently told state lawmakers that change is “imminent,” but he also raised some concerns about how that could impact people relying on those weekly payments.

“We’re affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. And, we’re just very cautious when we flip something on that we don’t want to have to flip it right back off,” he said. “I can’t give you a date. I think it will be very soon.”

Last March as the pandemic began, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) waived the requirement that people receiving benefits also verify that they are seeking new jobs.

Ordinarily, people receiving benefits have to “seek work with three potential employers each week” and keep records of that, according to the Division of Employment Security. Failing to do that can lead to recipients having to pay their benefits back.

Cooper waived the requirement for several reasons, including the need to get money to people as quickly as possible amid an unprecedented number of layoffs.

State officials were concerned about people potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19 as they looked for a new job. Additionally, many of the workers who were laid off expected to return to their jobs once their businesses reopened.

“We want people safely back to work as soon as possible and work requirements can help with that. However, during this pandemic, these requirements are difficult for some and we don’t want to deny them benefits that help keep families afloat and stimulate our economy. We will continue to talk with legislators and examine this issue before making final decisions,” said Cooper spokesperson Dory MacMillan in an email.

A bill recently filed in the General Assembly would reinstate the work-search requirement for people who are laid off for reasons other than the pandemic.

It would not apply to people out of work due to COVID-19.

Gibson noted having those requirements in place for some people but not others would be problematic and likely create confusion for people receiving benefits.

Republican lawmakers pressed Gibson for a more precise timeline of when the work-search requirement will be back in place.

“I have businesses that can’t operate. I’ve got many employers that can’t get people,” said Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir/Wayne). “When I hear things like ‘soon’ or ‘close’ I don’t know what that means.”
Gibson noted that DES officials have discussed the issue for the last several months. The agency has the authority to reinstate the requirement.

“To give you an exact date, I think would be disingenuous,” he said. “Within days, and certainly a few weeks, the work search is going to be turned on for everyone. That’s our goal.”

Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake) said he opposed having the General Assembly mandate when DES must reinstate the requirement.

“Our job should be to make sure that people who need benefits can get them and don’t have to risk their lives to go and try and find a job to get those benefits,” he said. “I’d like to err on the side of making sure that we get people the money they need now and make it easier for them to do that rather than harder.”

Jenni Propst, who lost her job as the pandemic began, has been out of work for nearly a year.
She said she’s applied to more than 60 jobs but remains optimistic she’ll end up returning to her job as a stagehand at live events once they’re safe to resume.

“If the state wants to tell me I have to keep (applying), I will. But, there aren’t any jobs out there,” she said. “No one really is interested to hire someone that is likely going back to their real job in a few months.”