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State still overwhelmed with jobless claims as governor expands eligibility

By Kari Travis

RALEIGH — After weeks of waiting and hours on the phone, Laura Reich, a Matthews resident and dental hygienist who lost her job March 17, finally got the unemployment pay promised her by North Carolina and the federal government. 

Reich is one of 273,699 people who’ve received unemployment benefits from the N.C. Division of Employment Security since March 15. To date, more than 705,399 people have filed claims, DES says.

North Carolina, which ranks last in the nation at making timely payments to people who qualify for unemployment insurance, is working hard to manage the onslaught of claims due COVID-19, said Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary for employment security at the N.C. Department of Commerce. But still more people are set to swarm DES after Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday expanded unemployment insurance to include furloughed workers.

The department is in “somewhat uncharted territory,” Taylor told a House committee April 21. Its call team is bombarded daily with roughly 80,000 calls. That eclipses numbers the department saw during the 2009 recession and Hurricane Florence, Taylor said. 

By April 24, DES plans to have more than 1,000 workers manning the telephones. The department hopes to field 33,000 calls each day, Taylor said. The department is looking into an instant message option that may help cut call volume. 

Reich, who works for a private dental office near Charlotte, phoned DES countless times after applying for unemployment March 18. Like many others, she experienced dropped calls and long wait times. Finally, on April 20, she reached a DES worker, but only after holding for seven hours.

Money, including back payments of $600 per week from the federal government’s Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, appeared in her bank account the next morning. She checked her balance twice — just to be sure it wasn’t a joke. 

“I’m so, so relieved,” Reich said.

Gillian Wilk, another Charlotte-area worker, isn’t so lucky. Wilk worked two jobs before the onset of COVID-19. When North Carolina’s courts closed in March, the legal transcriber lost her contract job, but managed to retain about 20 hours of at-home work as an internet assessor for Lionbridge, an internet and software testing company.

At first, Wilk was approved to receive $250 a week from DES. Then she learned she could only receive unemployment if she limited earnings at her remaining job to $45 per week, Wilk told CJ. Under state unemployment rules, people collecting unemployment are allowed to earn 20% of their weekly benefit without penalty.

The situation feels impossible, Wilk said. If she cuts work hours, she won’t make enough to cover her bills — and feels no assurance that she’ll actually receive any assistance as the state struggles to shoulder hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims. But without financial assistance, she’s unsure her reduced paychecks will suffice until courts reopen and she returns to her normal work schedule.

CJ emailed Taylor, asking if DES is working with the governor to address situations like Wilk’s, and to ask how the numbers DES reports on its website correlate to numbers the department is required to submit to the U.S. Department of Labor, but received no response by press time.

The department is doing its best, Taylor said to House members Tuesday, especially as it readies the launch of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Under the plan, independent contractors and self-employed people can apply for unemployment benefits. DES plans to accept those claims by April 25, but is concerned about “the integrity of the system,” Taylor said.

The department is running multiple tests on the program and working with the N.C. Department of Revenue to cross-check wages, he said.

“This group of people has been weeks without [pay], and we want to get [money] out, but I wanna make darn sure that we have legitimate individuals applying for this,” Taylor said. “I believe we are putting the safeguards in place to ensure that will be done, and done correctly.”

Travis is a reporter with Carolina Journal News Service.

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