War of Words
Local lawmakers defend, decry decision to end jobless benefits for thousands
The past year has been difficult for Donald Davis and his family.
The father of three was laid off from his job at Merfin Systems in King in 2012. Soon after that, his wife lost her job as a CNA. In the time that has transpired since, the couple has struggled to care for their family of five. Last week, the family’s unemployment benefits ended when Republicans in the state legislators made North Carolina the first state to opt not to accept benefits from the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program that would have extended benefits through the end of the year for an estimated 70,000 long term unemployed citizens across the state.
“A lot of people are going to be hurt by this, me included,” Davis said of the decision . “… It’s going to be a struggle just to make ends meet, just to put food on the table.”
Davis was among a small contingent of concerned citizens who gathered Monday at Democratic State Sen. Earline Parmon’s district office downtown to discuss the unemployment cliff, which Parmon said would directly impact thousands of Forsyth County residents.
“Two thousand twenty five people in Forsyth County received their last unemployment check last month,” Parmon told the group.
House Reps. Alma Adams, Ed Hanes and Evelyn Terry joined Parmon at the meeting. Adams, who represents Guilford County’s District 58, called the July 1 cutoff date “D-Day” for the thousands of North Carolinians who have depended on the benefits to stay afloat.
“I think it is a slap in the face to our citizens. It says to them that, ‘we are not concerned about you,’” declared Adams, who is in her 10th term in the House. “I just don’t think that the Legislature has really shown compassion for our citizens and that is really our responsibility, to take care of our citizens.”
Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican who represents portions of both Forsyth and Davie counties, was one of the major sponsors of the bill in the House. She said the bill was designed to help North Carolina manage a multi-billion dollar debt it owes to the federal government for previous unemployment programs.
“Today, is the first day that we’re starting. Yesterday, we were continuing to bleed in our fund. We were paying out more benefits than we were collecting. Today is a different day,” she said.
Rep. Evelyn Terry, a Democrat who represents Forsyth’s District 71, said the bill, which ended unemployment for those who had exhausted their 26 weeks of state-funded benefits, will have a swift and negative impact.
“For every one job that is available in the state of North Carolina currently, there are three people waiting in line to fill it, so you do the math,” Terry declared. “…We really do stand to perhaps face a crisis like no other crisis as it relates to what’s happened.”
Howard says the bill represents a strong showing of faith to employers that there is an end in sight to unemployment debt, which she says they are partially responsible for paying. She believes the new law will make employers more inclined to hire new employees.
“We started to recognize that we had a real issue, a real problem as the debt continued to grow. At one point, we were over $2.5 billion that we owed to the federal government, and that was from benefits that were being paid out that we did not have money to pay,” Howard said. “The employers across the state were concerned.”
Hanes, who represents Forsyth County’s District 72, says there is no proof that alleviating debt will lead to jobs. He said cutting benefits to reduce debt was simply “bad economics.”
“We’re still in a supply and demand economy – this money that the folks were going to get was going to go directly back into the economy,” said Hanes. “…This is not going to help increase jobs. It’s simply going to stagnate the market.”
Forsyth County’s District 74 Rep. Debra Conrad, a Republican, said she supported the bill and previous cuts to unemployment, including reducing the maximum number of weeks a person can draw unemployment from 26 to 20, and cutting the maximum weekly payout rate from $535 to $356. The cuts put North Carolina unemployment benefits in line with other states, Conrad said. She likened the state’s unemployment debt to “a cloud hanging over North Carolina.
“It was a problem that had to get resolved,” commented the former Forsyth County commissioner. “…The benefits have always been supposed to be for a short period of time and because of this recession, they’ve turned into a permanent solution.”
Parmon believes the cuts could produce far reaching unintended consequences for North Carolina citizens.
“We know that when families do not have sufficient income to provide for their basic needs, crime goes up, domestic violence goes up, child abuse goes up. All kinds of negative things happen when we have that kind of impact,” Parmon said. “…We cannot balance North Carolina’s budget on the backs of families, the poor and the elderly.”
For Davis, the bill contributes to a sense of being overlooked and forgotten by state legislators.
“Basically, they don’t care about the people of this state,” he said. “Apparently, they weren’t thinking about us (unemployed citizens). They were thinking about other people.”