State Senate Leader Phil Berger has some questions  about the news  that MillerCoors is going to close its long-time facility in Eden, Rockingham County, laying off 520 people in the process. Last night, he and fellow Rockingham legislator Bert Jones sent a letter  to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights with a list of questions they urged the panel to pursue in an effort to determine whether the Eden brewery closure falls afoul of federal anti-monopoly regulations.
The Senator’s efforts are admirable given the enormously negative impact the plant’s closure would have on the rural community, which already has one of the state’s highest unemployment rates . And we sincerely hope that the brewery remains open, staving off the kind of mass layoffs that proved so disastrous to the human and economic fabric in rural communities like Kannapolis.
But after years of watching the legislature systematically dismantle the very state investments that protect jobless workers and promote community resiliency in times of high unemployment, workers in Rockingham and across North Carolina have some questions for Senator Berger as well:
- Why should Rockingham workers lose their unemployment benefits if they can’t find a job after 12 weeks ? If the brewery closes, 520 workers will lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Given that there are already twice as many unemployed workers as available job openings in Rockingham County (according to NCWorks ), it will be mathematically very difficult for most these laid off workers to find new jobs. Thanks to the policies enacted by the General Assembly in 2013, Rockingham County workers will only have 12 weeks to find a job before they lose their unemployment benefits—the lowest duration offered for temporary wage replacement in the nation.
- Why should these laid off workers in Rockingham County lose food assistance after just three months if they can’t find employment in a job market without enough jobs? Since welfare reform in 1990s, the federal government has required able-bodied adults with no dependents to find a job, be engaged in skills training, or participate in other qualifying activities after three months of receiving food assistance or lose this assistance altogether. At the same time, federal law allows states to request waivers from this time limit in economically distressed counties where jobs are not available. Unfortunately, the General Assembly banned the state from offering this waiver in 2015, despite the 77 counties that qualified due to weak labor markets. In effect this move will significantly reduce access to food assistance for workers living in those counties, including Rockingham, after July 1 when the prohibition goes into effect.
- How will the Rockingham economy benefit from a system that provides workers with the lowest weekly unemployment benefits in the country? As part of unemployment insurance reform package enacted in 2013, the amount of unemployment insurance payments workers receive as a replacement to the wage they used to earn while employed was cut to an average of $233 a week— one of the lowest in the nation. This means that if Coors shuts down the Eden brewery, those 520 laid-off workers will almost certainly reduce their spending at local businesses. And given that employers need paying customers to stay in business, these unemployment benefit cuts will only make it harder for local businesses to survive.
- Why didn’t the North Carolina General Assembly expand Medicaid so that jobless workers in Rockingham County could have health coverage? As a union facility, the Eden brewery provides health insurance to most of its employees, insurance that laid-off workers will lose if the plant closes. In many other states, Medicaid expansion would provide these workers with the healthcare they would no longer receive through their job. Unfortunately, the General Assembly has refused to expand Medicaid in North Carolina, a decision that will likely leave hundreds of laid-off workers without access to affordable healthcare and add to the almost 3,000 county residents who already lack health insurance coverage. Moreover, a recent study  showed expanding Medicaid would create 313 new jobs and $127 million in new business activity In Rockingham County by 2020—a crucial opportunity for reversing the job loss and local economic decline that would occur if the brewery closes.
- Why has the state failed to invest state dollars in retraining and workforce development to ensure that workers in Rockingham County can gain the skills they need for new employment opportunities? Job training is a critical investment that gives unemployed workers the tools they need t o retrain and gain the skills required to enter higher-wage occupations. Career pathway programs in particular create avenues for workers to build occupation-specific skills consecutively over the course of a career, creating stepping stones for long-term advancement within that occupation. But while the state has created successful programs like Basic Skills Plus  and employer partnerships to provide workers with employment-ready skills in high-demand occupations, the General Assembly has repeatedly refused to adequately fund these programs. In fact, state commitment to workforce development has dropped by 10 percent  since 2008 at the same time that the General Assembly has doubled the cost of community college tuition —putting retraining programs out of reach for many workers who would suffer from a Coors closure.
We wish Senator Berger well in his efforts to keep the Eden brewery open. But he needs to explain to his constituents why the legislature has been so comfortable dismantling the investments that would support unemployed workers and boost the Rockingham economy if the brewery ultimately closes.
Allan Freyer is the Director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center. Alexandra Sirota of the N.C. Budget & Tax Center contributed to this commentary.