Jobless face uncertainty over unemployment benefits

by Michelle Saxton
Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jobless residents in New Hanover County and throughout the state could soon be without an unemployment check if federally funded benefits end after 2011, commerce and social services officials said.

"There are quite a few families in New Hanover County whose livelihoods depend on receiving an unemployment check," county Department of Social Services Director LaVaughn Nesmith said Tuesday, Dec. 20.

While Nesmith said he would not know the impact until people come to the Wilmington office for help, he has seen a heavy growth of people seeking assistance. Wait times to see clients have gone from about 30 minutes to an hour over the last year, he said.

North Carolina residents who lose a job through no fault of their own and qualify for unemployment compensation could receive up to 26 weeks of initial, regular benefits from a state trust fund paid by employers. After that, four tiers of federal emergency benefits totaling up to 53 weeks have kicked in, followed by a federally funded state extension of up to 20 weeks that states can take advantage of during periods of high unemployment.

That has meant up to 99 weeks of unemployment compensation for some.

But the future of those federally funded benefits was in question as Congress had yet to pass a bill that would extend the federal emergency benefits, and North Carolina was expected to trigger off the state extension due to formula guideline changes.

If North Carolina triggers off the state extension, the state Division of Employment Security anticipated the last payable week for the state extended benefits will be Jan. 28 and immediately affect roughly 25,000 people, according to Larry Parker, the agency’s acting public information director.

Parker emphasized that conditions could change any day, depending on what happens in Congress and what the state hears from the federal Department of Labor.

Meanwhile, about 5,086 New Hanover County residents were receiving unemployment compensation during the week ending Dec. 10, Parker said.

Of those, 2,524 were receiving their first 26 weeks of regular state-funded benefits, while approximately 2,174 had reached one of the four tiers of federal emergency benefits and 388 had qualified for the state extension, Parker said.

The division’s southeast office in Wilmington, which is on Market Street, was continuing services to help people get back to work, including through individualized job referrals, job matching services and exposure to retraining opportunities, regional manager Sherwood Southerland said.

"Holiday seasons are always difficult any time an individual or family has any type of economic situation that causes them stress," Southerland said Wednesday, Dec. 21.

Southerland estimated the office gets an average of about 200 to 250 people a day, including those who use the resource center to do their own job researching and resume writing.

"It’s a pretty steady flow," Southerland said.

The House rejected a Senate bill on Dec. 20 that would have, among other things, extended unemployment benefits for two months.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., had voted in support of the bill.

"This bill will extend the payroll tax cut to help working families, ensure Medicare patients can still see their doctor, help those who are unemployed, protect our hospitals and provide a quick decision on the Keystone pipeline that will help with energy independence and job creation," McIntyre said in a prepared statement Dec. 20.

Without action by federal policy makers before the year’s end, unemployment benefits were expected to expire for about 70,000 people in North Carolina throughout January, Alexandra Sirota, director of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, said Wednesday, Dec. 21.

Unemployment was projected to remain high throughout 2012, Sirota added.

"We’re just not seeing the kind of job growth that will bring down unemployment," Sirota said.

Gov. Bev Perdue and 15 other governors sent a letter earlier this month to congressional leaders urging them to extend federal unemployment benefits.

"We are extremely concerned about the potential impact of the expiration of these programs on families and our economic recovery as a whole," the governors’ Dec. 15 letter stated.

About 9.4 percent of New Hanover County’s workers – and 9.7 percent of North Carolina’s – were unemployed, according to October civilian labor force estimates from the state.

For more information on unemployment benefits, statewide job listings and New Hanover County Social Services

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