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Governor's executive order provides more unemployment filing flexibility

Governor's executive order provides more unemployment filing flexibility

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Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order Monday that gives state employment officials more flexibility in assisting new unemployment benefit claimants.

Executive Order No. 200 “establishes a flexible work-search requirement” for all claimants, effective March 14.

“More jobs are being created as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, and people who are out of work need help getting them,” Cooper said in a statement.

“Unemployment payments have been critical for families, and we want them to have jobs before the payments end.”

As part of the work search requirement process, Commerce “shall create a process to assist and ensure that all New Claimants are registered with a jobseeker account in www.ncworks.gov,” according to the order. The department is to add staff to comply with the order.

The state Commerce Department is instructed “to interpret work search laws flexibly to account for burdens posed by COVID-19 that could affect a job seeker’s ability to satisfy search requirements.”

“The department is also directed “to establish a broad set of reemployment activities that qualify for a claimant’s job search.”

Cooper cited the Feb. 20 expiration for the federal extended benefits payment program for the order.

The program expired because the state no longer met federal requirements. There had been $219.7 million in payments to North Carolinians, or about 2% of the $10.21 billion in state and federal UI benefit payments.

“This step will ensure that out-of-work North Carolinians can access job-seeking assistance available through NCWorks and other state-sponsored job search programs,” Cooper wrote in the order.

House Bill 107

On Thursday, a state House bill advanced that would restart the work search requirement for individuals whose job loss is not related to COVID-19.

Republican-sponsored House Bill 107 also would restore the one-week waiting period for benefits to begin for non-COVID-19 job losses.

HB107 was recommended by the House Finance committee to the Rules and Operations committee.

There is companion legislation in Senate Bill 114 that has yet to be heard in committee. Both bills would go into effect when signed into law.

Among the first pandemic steps taken by Cooper in March 2020 was issuing an executive order that he said would “take down some barriers to unemployment benefits.”

Among the key elements of Executive Order No. 118:

* Removing the requirement that recipients have to look for work during the benefits period.

* Waiving the one-week waiting period to receive benefits.

* Allowing applicants to file for benefits if they are subject to reduced hours as well as being laid off.

The executive order remains in effect until either being rescinded by Cooper, amended by another executive order or the state of emergency declaration ends.

However, the state Division of Employment Security has the authority to reactivate the work search requirements.

Antoine Keith, the state Department of Employment Security’s senior deputy of programs, told the committee that the state economy has improved enough in recent months, including a significant decline in initial state unemployment claims, to warrant the restart of the two requirements.

Keith said DES hasn’t taken that restart step yet because it is working to assure that the resumption of the two requirements would not affect COVID-19 related job losses and furloughs.

UI proposals

Cooper said Feb. 5 in unveiling his 2021-22 state budget proposal that he supports offering North Carolinians 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits and raising the weekly maximum benefit from $350 to $500.

“Even before the pandemic, North Carolina had some of the shortest and stingiest unemployment benefits in the country,” Cooper said.

Since July 2013, unemployed North Carolinians have been eligible for a maximum of 12 weeks of regular state unemployment benefits at a weekly maximum of $350, down from $530.

Benefits were cut by the Republican super-majority in the legislature and signed into law by then-Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

The maximum of 12 weeks is tied with Florida for the least in the country, while 44 states provide a maximum of 26 weeks.

As of Jan. 3, people making new unemployment claims in North Carolina can draw up to 16 weeks of regular state unemployment benefits over a 12-month period because of a sliding scale put into the 2013 law based on the state jobless rate.

“Now is the time to fix this and provide a real safety net,” Cooper said.

As of Monday, regular state unemployment payments are at $1.83 billion, with about $120 million being paid out since Oct. 1.

Unemployed and furloughed North Carolinians began exhausting their 12 weeks of regular state unemployment benefits in June and well before Oct. 1.

The state had $3.85 billion in the state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund in mid-March. State legislators said Sept. 2 that between $2.9 billion and $3 billion remained in the fund at that time. The third COVID-19 relief bill added $87 million.

Cooper said Thursday that the fund contains $2.59 billion, and that he supports using additional money from the fund.

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