Fitzsimon File

Last in decency

UI-benefits620

Everybody seems concerned these days about how North Carolina ranks against other states. It is especially true in the tax cut debate with the folks on the Right claiming that slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy will give the state one of the top-ranked business climates in the country.

That’s ludicrous of course— the ranking system they are citing was developed by the right-wing Tax Foundation, an organization dedicated to lowering taxes across the board.

But interestingly, one ranking or comparison with other states hasn’t received much attention at all even though a deadline to confirm it is rapidly approaching.

Unless lawmakers develop a sense of compassion in the next few days, 70,000 long-term unemployed workers will lose their federal emergency unemployment benefits July 1. At least another 70,000 laid off workers will lose their emergency benefits before the end of the year.

It does not have to happen and extending the benefits for another six months won’t cost the state a dime. They would be paid with federal funding.

North Carolina lawmakers knew they were creating this unemployment benefit cliff when they made their draconian cuts to the state unemployment system earlier this session.

The federal government made it clear that states that reduced the maximum number of weeks that workers could receive benefits to below 26 would not be allowed to receive the extension in emergency benefits.

The law that lawmakers approved and Governor Pat McCrory signed slashed the maximum of weeks from 26 to a sliding scale of 12-20 weeks and it takes effect July 1, immediately cutting off the emergency benefits for 70,000 workers and thousands more in the weeks and months after that.

Legislative leaders justify the timing of the cuts by saying that the state needs to begin paying back the money now that it borrowed from the federal government to pay unemployment claims during the worst of the Great Recession.

In the 1990s lawmakers cut the unemployment taxes on businesses, leaving the unemployment trust fund unable to handle the crush of claims that poured in as the economic crisis worsened.

The plan developed to repay the debt was written in secret with leaders of the NC Chamber with no input from advocates for workers. And it goes far beyond repaying the debt. Chamber officials and the all-too-happy-to-cooperate legislative leadership used the crisis to dismantle much of the unemployment insurance program that business interests have long complained about.

But even with all that, they didn’t have to make it effective July 1 and cut off emergency benefits for 70,000 workers and their families.

That’s where the shameful ranking comes in. No other state in country has done that, acted to reject these 100-percent federally funded benefits for its out-of work residents. Not one.

North Carolina will rank dead last in how we treat workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own in the Great Recession.

The state’s unemployment rate is the 5th highest in the nation. There are roughly three unemployed people for every job that’s available. There are simply not enough jobs for the people who are looking and now we are going to deny them emergency help to pay their rent and buy food for their families.

Lawmakers don’t have to take the word of workers advocates about the difficulty people face finding another job. They can ask their colleague, Rep. Jason Saine, who was on unemployment for more than year himself before being appointed to General Assembly in 2011.

Saine told Sarah Ovaska with NC Policy Watch earlier this year that he didn’t approve of the stigma associated with unemployment and that “real people who want to work can’t find jobs.”

They still can’t find jobs— they can’t all be appointed to the General Assembly after all—and now they are about to lose the meager unemployment benefits that allow them to survive while they keep looking.

Legislative leaders could still do the right thing, or part of it anyway, by simply changing the effective date of the new law to January 1. That would allow thousands of people a little more time to pay their bills while they look for work.

And for those who care about rankings that would mean that North Carolina would not be last in how it treats the victims of the Great Recession.

Surely the folks in charge in Raleigh can find that small measure of decency in their hearts to not be the most callous state in the country.