RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The state agency that handles unemployment claims is making changes in response to a surge in filings.
The changes come after some residents have run into issues with the state’s website and long waits on the phone.
Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary for the Division of Employment Security, says in about a day-and-a-half, the state saw six times the amount of filings it’s equipped to handle in an entire week.
On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered bars and restaurants to only allow delivery and curbside pickup. As the coronavirus pandemic affects a wide variety of industries, thousands of people have suddenly found themselves either out of work or had their hours reduced.
Taylor says the state received about 18,000 unemployment filings following Cooper’s order. His agency is staffed to handle about 3,000 claims in a week.
“We’ve increased the capacity of our servers to ensure that they are able to handle the workflow coming in at this time,” said Taylor.
He said the agency received approval to hire 50 additional people to help process claims.
Cooper’s order earlier this week eased some of the usual regulations on handling unemployment claims. It eliminated the one-week waiting period to apply for benefits and allows people to cite COVID-19 as the reason losing their jobs or having their hours reduced. People also are not required to be actively looking for other jobs. They also do not have to apply in person.
Click here to access the website. The phone number is 888-737-0259.
Taylor said there is still the requirement to give employers 10 days to respond to a claim. Based on that timetable, he said, “I certainly believe that we will get payments out within two weeks.”
Starr Markham is among the thousands of people trying to navigate the system since being laid off several days ago. She worked as a stagehand at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
She said she was previously laid off in August, which is typically a slow period in her industry. When she applied for benefits that time, she said she mistakenly checked an incorrect box online and has struggled since then to get the error resolved. She tried to appeal her denial but said the only communication she received was that she’d missed a hearing she wasn’t aware had been scheduled.
“The way the system is set up, I can’t change any of the incorrect answers that I checked off the last time. So, I’m in the same boat that I was back in August,” Markham said. “We’ve lost our jobs through no fault of our own. Our livelihoods have just evaporated.”
Markham is calling on state lawmakers to expand the benefits available to citizens in response to the crisis.
In 2013, the Republican-led General Assembly reduced the maximum payment per week and the maximum number of weeks a person could receive unemployment benefits from 26 weeks down to 12-20 weeks, according to the North Carolina Justice Center. At the time, lawmakers said they were trying to repay money borrowed from the federal government amid a deficit in the trust fund that paid the benefits.
“We have a huge surplus in this state, and this is what this is for. This helps people get through these times,” said Markham.
The N.C. House of Representatives has formed working groups that are meeting remotely to look at ways to address the issue. Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said Thursday he wants to see what action Congress takes to address unemployment before moving forward with specific steps at the state level.
In an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer Thursday, Republican Sens. Ralph Hise and Ted Alexander wrote that this is among three top issues the state needs to tackle in response to the pandemic.
“The legislature has been planning for an economic disruption for 10 years through prudent budget decisions. We’ve built a multi-billion dollar cash surplus and one of the healthiest unemployment insurance reserves in the country,” they wrote. “We have the means for a proportionate response to an economic disruption. Times like this are exactly why.”
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