Coronavirus Exposes NC Unemployment Benefit Cruelty, Worse Burden on Women

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The coronavirus is a catastrophe for low paid workers. With women filling the majority of these jobs, the tragedy of unemployment and the lack of adequate unemployment insurance will fall disproportionately on them. This includes a look at the inadequacy and callousness of NC’s current unemployment compensation.

Many women are paid poorly, don’t have health care, and don’t have other benefits at work, like paid sick leave or family leave. Low paying roles include home health aides, child-care workers, retail cashiers, servers and hotel housekeepers. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), “women make up two-thirds of the over 23 million workers in the low wage workforce.” Over the past month, some of these industries have lost tens of thousands of jobs just in NC because of the coronavirus. If the NC General Assembly (NCGA) does not act, North Carolinians will continue to suffer unnecessarily. As an N&O editorial, “Coronavirus: Expanding unemployment benefits is good. Now NC must do more,” 3/17/20, said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the state’s health care systems, but it has also revealed how the state’s meager unemployment compensation program is both callous and bad for the economy.” The NCGA must fix these deficiencies in unemployment compensation and improve situations for women and families with laws to help them survive the pandemic and beyond.

Over 90% of employees who lose their jobs are denied unemployment compensation in North Carolina! In 2013, the NCGA and former Governor Pat McCrory slashed NC’s unemployment benefits by about one third and severely shortened how long people can collect benefits. At the same time, their legislation refused federal extended benefits that had already been allocated for North Carolinians. Before the changes in 2013, about 50% of unemployment claims were paid.

Because of this excessive rejection rate, few people will qualify for the extra $600 a week that would be sent to people who have already been deemed eligible for unemployment by their home state.

From March 16 through March 31, 2020, the state processed 332,773 unemployment claims. Approximately 87 percent (290,703) of those were COVID-19 related, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce and Division of Employment Security (DES). Not everyone filed. Some losses will be temporary, but many may be permanent as some businesses will not survive the shutdowns.

The NCGA could restore unemployment benefits to a decent level and return the interval to 26 weeks, and make benefits available for more people losing their jobs due to coronavirus. Money paid out to people ripples through communities. People would be able to take care of themselves, and would have money to spend at businesses. Conversely, lack of money for laid off workers will further tank the economy.

Women are on the front lines of essential workers. Women make up 75% of hospital workers, 93% of child care workers, and 66% of cashiers and retail salespeople in grocery stores, according to NWLC. What if these women get sick themselves? If they continue to work, they’ll spread the illness which now could be Covid-19. They need paid sick leave. Who takes care of ill family members? Usually women. They need paid family leave as well.

Meanwhile, the NCGA is sitting on $3.2 billion in rainy day and surplus funds and almost $4 billion dollars in NC’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. And they have the power to adjust or restore unemployment benefits and to provide programs to help women. 

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Phil Berger need to call for a special session to help North Carolinians survive the coronavirus shutdown. The pandemic rages on and the NCGA must help women, families and businesses survive by making more eligible for unemployment benefits that cover people longer, and providing paid sick leave and paid family leave for workers.


Gailya Paliga

President, NC National Organization for Women

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