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GOP-backed plan would pay jobless North Carolinians up to $1,500 to get a job this summer

Getting off unemployment and back to work might soon earn North Carolinians as much as an extra $1,500, under a proposal Republican lawmakers introduced Thursday to pay people to get a job.

The idea was introduced by Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Hendersonville Republican who owns several McDonald’s restaurants and is the co-chair of a joint committee on unemployment issues. His proposal would redirect federal unemployment money to instead be used for these signing bonuses, which would be $1,500 for unemployed people who start a new job by June 1, or $800 for people who start a new job between June 2 and July 1.

People would get half the money after their first 20 to 30 days on the job, and the second half after 60 days.

It’s common practice for businesses to either raise wages or offer signing bonuses when they can’t find enough workers at the rates they have been paying. Walmart, for example, had to offer a minimum wage of $17 at one of its North Dakota stores during the fracking boom there a few years ago just to find enough workers.

There’s less precedent for using taxpayer dollars to subsidize signing bonuses for businesses, as this new proposal would do.

In 2020, the state and federal governments paid many people not to work, by shutting down businesses to stop the spread of coronavirus while also amping up unemployment benefits. Now, though, COVID-19 vaccines are widely available and businesses are open once more. But some employers are finding they can’t get back to the staffing levels they had before the pandemic — which has so far killed nearly 600,000 Americans, including almost 13,000 in North Carolina.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate in March, the latest available data, was 5.2%. That’s a full percentage point better than the national average — and well below last year’s high of 13.5% unemployment during April and May of 2020. But the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the entire story of supply and demand for jobs. It doesn’t count people who have simply stopped looking for work altogether, for example, let alone people who used to work but then died in a pandemic.

The state director of a small business lobbying group, Greg Thompson of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, told lawmakers Thursday the idea is “unique, and something that I think will work.” Thompson pointed out that summer is fast-approaching, and employers in the tourism industry are about to start ramping up their seasonal hiring. In North Carolina, many such jobs pay the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

So if the proposed $1,500 bonus ends up passing into law, that would be equal to around 207 hours of work at minimum wage, or roughly five 40-hour weeks.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed a similar executive order on Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the North Carolina proposal was introduced. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office did not immediately respond to a request about whether he was considering a similar action, or if he had spoken with local lawmakers about their proposal in the legislature Thursday.