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Worker advocates seek more state aid as federal benefits expire

North Carolina’s unemployed need higher and longer jobless benefits from the state more than ever now that additional federal benefits created during the COVID-19 pandemic expired this month, advocates for workers and the poor said Monday.

Several programs expired nationwide, including a $300-a-week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefit and a $100-a-week payment for self-employed workers. All told, about 131,000 displaced workers in North Carolina who had been receiving benefits before the programs ended no longer qualify for federal or state benefits, according to the state Division of Employment Security.

The agency says an additional 38,000 people are still eligible for North Carolina state benefits, which max out at $350 per week for up to 13 weeks. But that’s hardly enough going forward to help people cover living expenses, speakers at a virtual news conference said.

Sen. Wiley Nickel, a Wake County Democrat, urged Republican colleagues again to pass his legislation to raise state benefits to $500 a week for up to 26 weeks. Nickel said the proposed expanded benefits, which align with what Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has sought, can be paid through the state’s unemployment trust fund, which had $2.8 billion earlier this year.

“We need to help our jobless workers and do the right thing,” Nickel said. “Folks are suffering and we have the ability to do this.”

GOP lawmakers have been cool to similar proposals since the current formula was passed in 2013, concerned about the trust fund’s health after it went deep in debt after the 2008 recession. They agreed with business owners who argue the additional federal benefits were a disincentive for displaced workers to take jobs, even as offered wages rose.

Monday’s speakers said there’s little evidence the federal benefits affected job-offer decisions. Many people can’t work because they lack affordable child care, or fear for their own health as coronavirus keeps spreading, state AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan said.

At the same time, job training and mandated “living” wages are needed to connect workers better with unfilled positions, said Alexandra Sirota, director of the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center.

“For many workers who toiled for low wages pre-pandemic and found little economic security, returning to low-wage work is not an option,” Sirota said.

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