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Gov. Cooper proposes raising unemployment benefits with possible recession looming



RALEIGH, N.C. Local Charlotte – With a possible recession looming, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) proposed increasing state unemployment benefits this week as part of his budget plan he sent to the Republican-controlled General Assembly. 

Legislative leaders were critical of the idea, pointing to the challenge state government and businesses are having in hiring workers. 

The governor is calling for a variety of changes that would lead to increased payments that people could receive for a longer period of time. 

The maximum weekly payment would be $450 and future increases would be tied to inflation. The current maximum is $350, which people can receive for 12 to 20 weeks depending on what the unemployment rate is.

Cooper’s proposal would change how the number of weeks is calculated to lengthen the duration of time people would get those payments. He also proposed increasing the minimum weekly benefit from $15 per week to $100 per week. 

State Budget Director Kristin Walker told members of the General Assembly that the state is among those that pays unemployed people the least amount of money and that North Carolina could afford to make these changes. 

She said if they were implemented and a “mild recession” occurred, the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund would still continue to climb, reaching nearly $5 billion. The fund currently has nearly $4 billion.  

Berger pointed to the other efforts state leaders are undertaking to try to bring more people into the workforce.  

“So, the short answer is no,” Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said. 

The governor’s administration noted that labor force participation in North Carolina is still below what it was in 2019. State government agencies have struggled to hire people, and the vacancy rate has climbed to 23.4 percent. 

“And, I really think increasing the benefit for unemployment at this time is the wrong track to take if we want to get more people into the workforce,” said Berger. 

In 2020, Senate Republicans said they backed the idea of a temporary increase to the state’s unemployment benefits amid the shutdowns tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they ultimately did not make any changes to state payments. 

Jenni Propst, who works in the entertainment industry, relied on unemployment payments for more than a year during the pandemic.  

Propst said the money the state paid her would not have covered her bills and was thankful the federal government offered additional money to help her get through that time. 

“The pandemic shut down our entire industry. It was devastating,” she said. “There’s no way I could have paid my bills during the pandemic if all I was receiving were the state benefits. The state benefits were so miniscule.” 

She thinks the state is overdue to make changes to unemployment benefits since Republicans cut them in 2013. At the time, the state was in debt to the federal government for unemployment payments made to people during the Great Recession. 

“Inflation is insane right now. The cost of housing, whether you’re renting or buying, has doubled or tripled in the past five years,” she said. “Raising these unemployment numbers of weeks, the amount people are able to receive, that’s huge. And, that’s something we need to protect the citizens of North Carolina.” 

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