People across North Carolina have gone months without unemployment checks while waiting for the state to consider their appeals of denied benefits. The wait times in North Carolina are far higher than the nationwide average.
The appeals system has been overwhelmed by people contesting denied benefits. Since March 15, 2020, over 430,000 people have been denied benefits in North Carolina — nearly 1 in 3 people who’ve applied for unemployment. Experts attribute the large volume of denials in North Carolina at least partly to changes to the state’s unemployment system that predate the pandemic.
As unemployment agencies have made it through the backlog of claims in recent months, the number of appeals has surged: nationwide, the number of appeals cases nearly doubled from just over 200,000 in June to just over 400,000 in November. In North Carolina, appeals cases doubled from fewer than 12,000 in June to nearly 25,000 in November, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
But in North Carolina, the unemployment system was especially unprepared. At the same time the Republican-led legislature narrowed eligibility, it eliminated all state funding for administration of state unemployment benefits, leaving the system entirely dependent on declining federal funds.
Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Henderson Republican who co-chairs the legislative oversight committee on unemployment insurance, contested that inadequate funding was to blame for the appeals backlog.
“It seems like a stretch to explain away the Cooper Administration’s unemployment assistance debacle by pointing to something the legislature did seven years prior,” Edwards said in an email, blaming the large number of appeals on the large number of claims.
He cited a May 2020 hearing in which then-DES Assistant Secretary Lockhart Taylor said his department had adequate resources. However, according to a recording of the hearing, Taylor did not get to fully address that question. When Edwards asked whether funding is “one of the obstacles right now,” Taylor replied “No sir—”at which point Edwards quickly cut him off mid-sentence: “Thank you.”
In response to a question about staffing needs, Taylor said at the hearing he did not yet know whether the current staffing level would be adequate.
Taylor was moved from his position to a different position at the Commerce Department within the month.