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North Carolina Republicans pitch back-to-work bonuses

North Carolina would dip into federal unemployment supplements to pay people on unemployment a $1,500 bonus to take a job under legislation released Thursday at the statehouse, NBC affiliate WRAL reports.

The proposal would also cut off benefits for people who refuse jobs or skip job interviews, and it would move the state back to pre-pandemic requirements for looking for a job while receiving weekly benefits.

The plan is preliminary. It would require federal approval to use federal supplements to pay the bonuses.

The bonuses would be tiered under the new House Bill 128: $1,500 for people who move off the unemployment rolls in the first wave and $800 for people in the second, according to WRAL.

Right now, the first wave deadline would arrive June 1 and the second July 1, but bill sponsors said Thursday those dates may not be realistic and will likely change. A key factor will be whether the federal government will approve the strategy and how long an approval might take. This bill comes in response to businesses complaining they can't find enough employees and blaming federal pandemic stimulus programs that have boosted unemployment benefits.

The average benefit in North Carolina, as of earlier in May, was $495 a week before taxes, according to the state Division of Employment Security. That includes various federal supplements, including the $300-a-week supplement many unemployed people receive. That average weekly benefit works out to about $12.38 an hour for a 40-hour-a-week job, according to WRAL.

Without federal supplements, regular unemployment benefits in North Carolina typically total half the person's salary from their previous job and cap at $350 a week. Under House Bill 128, people on unemployment would lose their benefits if they refuse a job that pays at least 120% of their state benefit, without the federal supplements.

Unemployed North Carolinians would also have to make three job contacts a week, respond to interview requests within 48 hours and show up for their interviews. If they fail to respond to interview requests or show up for an interview three times, they'd lose benefits under the bill. The NC Department of Employment Security would help track these things with the help of a private contractor.

Republicans rolled the legislation out Thursday in the Senate Commerce Committee. Initial votes may come next week, though bill details may change between now and then.

Unemployment issues tend to split the state legislature along party lines, but Democrats seeing the measure for the first time Thursday seemed intrigued.

Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Henderson County Republican who presented the bill Thursday, called the matter "critical to North Carolina's economy." People who can't find work wouldn't lose their federal supplements, as Republicans have proposed in some states, Edwards said.

But some of the federal supplement money would be used to pay bonuses. "Folks who are not able to return to work will continue to receive the supplements," he said.

Some Democrats noted that employers would find it easier to hire if they paid a livable wage, often pegged at $15 an hour. That works out to $31,200 a year, before taxes.

Edwards and other lawmakers noted that there are other roadblocks keeping people on the unemployment rolls, including limited child care options.