RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said the state’s “application is being finalized” to tap into federal unemployment benefits authorized by President Donald Trump, as the governor faces criticism from Republicans in the state legislature for not moving more quickly.
The U.S. Department of Labor and FEMA said as of Wednesday, 10 other states have been approved for the Lost Wages Assistance program.
“We want to get the most unemployment benefits help to people as quickly as we possibly can,” Cooper said Wednesday. “The best way to do this would be for Congress and the President to agree on funding the program that already exists instead of this new program.”
Trump signed an executive order earlier this month authorizing $400 weekly payments to people unemployed due to COVID-19. This happened after Congress failed to reach an agreement on a new stimulus bill. Up until the end of July, people had received $600 per week from the federal government in addition to the state benefits they received.
The president’s executive order calls on the federal government to pay 75 percent of the cost ($300) and for states to pay for the remaining 25 percent ($100).
“Extremely concerned that there could be a timing issue here because there are only limited funds,” said Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-48th District), co-chair of the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance. “Congress did not approve anything. And regardless of how complicated it may be, the application needs to be submitted.”
Cooper said he supports North Carolinians receiving the full $400 weekly supplement. He said the cost of the $100 state match should be paid for using the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and not through the CARES Act.
When asked about that, Edwards did not commit to supporting the full $400.
“That is certainly a keen possibility, but we also need to consider the fact that the length of the state of emergency is unknown,” he said. “What we’re working to make sure happens right now is we’re able to take advantage of the $300 that the federal government is offering us.”
There’s currently about $2.9 billion in the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund as of Aug. 10, according to Democratic state Sen. Wiley Nickel’s office.
Some states are counting money they already pay to people as meeting the $100 match.
In guidance released this week by FEMA, it notes that payments under the program would be retroactive to the week ending August 1. The agency says on average it will take states until the end of August to start sending out the money to people who qualify.
It’s not clear how long that funding will be available. Trump’s order calls for the money to come from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund.
The federal government’s guidance says states will initially receive three weeks’ worth of funding. Then, the agency will determine on a weekly basis whether there’s enough funding to keep making the payments.
Cooper also has asked state lawmakers to increase North Carolina’s unemployment benefits after the legislature cut them in 2013. The state’s General Assembly will reconvene Sept. 2.
The maximum weekly benefit is $350. Cooper has called for it to be raised to at least $500 per week and for that amount to be paid for at least 24 weeks.
This spring, the state Senate voted in favor of increasing the maximum payment to $400 per week beginning in August, but leaders in the House did not go along with the proposal.
“I certainly supported an increase in the state benefit before, and I would certainly support an increase in the future,” Edwards said.
Thousands of people across North Carolina are still left wondering exactly how all of this will be resolved.
Sara Fearrington, who lives in Durham, said she’s now trying to get by on $170 weekly unemployment payments.
“We’re not gonna survive. We’re not gonna make it like this,” she said.
Her kids just started the school year remotely, so she’s making sure the phone and Internet bills get paid. On top of that, her family is trying to stretch their food budget and try to find jobs that are safe to do amid the pandemic, which has been a struggle.
She blasted members of Congress for not reaching a compromise on unemployment benefits.
“They’re a joke! They’re a joke! I knew that they would do that because they don’t care,” she said. She also questioned President Trump’s executive order and whether it would ultimately have an impact on people like her.
“It’s a battle between them, and we’re the ones that are suffering for it,” she said.
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