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North Carolina has eclipsed 2 million state and federal unemployment insurance claims for the COVID-19 pandemic, the N.C. Division of Employment Security reported Friday.

There have been 1.19 million claimants representing 2.005 million claims after 9,081 were filed Thursday.

Some people have been required to file a second claim — after being determined to be ineligible for initial state benefits — in order to qualify for federal benefits that often include extended state benefits.

The sobering benefit-claims mark came as the clock ticked down to today’s expiration of the first round of federal benefits that has been providing up to $600 weekly since late April.

About 76% of unemployment-insurance, or UI, payments to North Carolinians have come from federal sources, primarily the weekly $600 benefit supplement provided by the federal government.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has urged the Republican Trump administration and Congress to extend the federal weekly benefit.

“The program has been a lifeline for families and their communities, giving people the ability to pay their rent and utilities, put food on their table and make ends meet,” Cooper said of the federal supplement.

“It will hurt our economy if these benefits are vastly reduced,” he said earlier this week. “Many people can’t safely go back to work, and many don’t have jobs to return to.”

North Carolina’s unemployment rate nearly tripled from 4.3% in March to 12.2% in April and 12.9% in May before dropping stunningly to 7.6% in June. Individuals without jobs and not actively looking for work are not counted as part of the labor force.

The state’s UI Trust Fund was close to $3.85 billion before the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since then, $1.51 billion has been paid out, or 39.2%.

The federal unemployment-payment breakdown is: $4.27 billion from the pandemic unemployment-compensation package; $306.5 million in the pandemic unemployment-assistance package; $163.2 million in pandemic emergency-unemployment compensation; and $2 million in an extended-benefits program.

About 28% of the 4.23 million North Carolinians considered in the state’s workforce as of mid-June have filed a state or federal UI claim.

According to N.C. DES, 818,012 claimants have received state and/or federal benefits, about 69% of the state’s claimants. About 22%, or 263,743 have been determined not eligible for benefits, while 3%, or 37,312, are awaiting a decision on state benefits.

Proposals in Congress

The $600 weekly benefit supplement was passed — barely — in Congress as a national-level benefit to get the payments out quickly rather than determine payments by individual states.

There were 32 million Americans considered as unemployed as of July 18, whether they were furloughed, laid off or their job was eliminated.

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House passed a $3 trillion stimulus bill that would offer a new round of federal UI benefits.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said the Trump administration would cap another round of federal UI benefits so that workers don’t receive more money than they did at their previous job.

It could take Congress weeks to reach a federal benefit extension compromise — at an amount potentially as low as $175 to $200 a week.

“What’s going to happen on Saturday, all the pain, all the suffering ... did not have to happen,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told media outlet The Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is preparing to roll out a $1 trillion package that could include another round of direct $1,200 cash payments to Americans who make less than $75,000 annually.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., have both emphasized encouraging workers to return to their jobs over extending the federal benefit.

N.C. legislative steps

Cooper has pointed out the lack of interest from the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly to extend state UI benefits beyond a weekly maximum of $350 and a maximum of 12 weeks — the latter tied with Florida for lowest in the nation.

Those rules were created in July 2013 when the Republican held a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature and Republican Pat McCrory was governor.

During the legislature’s negotiations of how to spend federal CARES Act money in March, N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he was willing to consider raising the state’s weekly maximum to $400.

However, during the 2020 session, the legislature did not take any committee action on two Democratic-sponsored pieces of UI-focused legislation, House Bill 1075 and companion Senate Bill 792, that would have restored the number of UI weeks to 26 and set a weekly maximum of $400.

Neither Berger’s office, nor the office of House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, have responded when asked about whether the legislative leaders support expanded state UI benefits.

Although Cooper did not mention calling for a special session of the General Assembly to specifically deal with state UI benefits, he requested that when the session resumes Sept. 2 that legislators “reevaluate North Carolina’s own unemployment compensation to support people who find themselves sidelined because of this virus.”

rcraver@wsjournal.com

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