“Misery loves company,” so goes the English proverb. But, after the last 15 months, you’d think we’d all agree to send the miserable couch potatoes home.
Not so the leaders of the General Assembly. Those who’ve had it the toughest — low-wage workers who have been out of work since as far back as mid-March 2020 and not yet near full recovery — need to suffer some more. That, they believe, will get them to take the jobs that appear to be going wanting as our economy begins to rev up again.
In the state House they’ve greased the skids on legislation to deny these workers the few remaining weeks of the additional $300 weekly the federal government added to unemployment benefits. North Carolina’s benefits are among the lowest in the nation and the shortest in duration. In the Senate they’re moving to make the requirement to receive unemployment benefits more onerous — including eliminating a provision that allowed workers’ participation in qualified training programs to meet job search requirements.
Look, workers in North Carolina are flocking back to their jobs or finding new ones. North Carolinians want to earn a living wage, have steady employment and make sure they’re providing for themselves and their families’ shelter, nutrition, health and quality of life.
Picking and choosing anecdotal tales for why some jobs are not being filled rapidly makes for a catchy line in a legislator’s speech or soundbite for a Twitter post.
But the real reasons some are not yet back to the workplace are as complicated and varied as the issues and challenges that have surrounded coping and surviving the COVID-19 pandemic itself.
No one’s getting rich off of the unemployment benefits they receive. Those still getting benefits need the money for basics. They are quickly pumping those dollars right back into North Carolina’s economy — some paying rent and utilities, others buying groceries, addressing personal needs, paying medical bills and more. They’re struggling just to address the basics of daily life.
Including the additional federal benefits, about 162,200 workers (nearly the population of Cary) who’ve been out of work currently receive an average $535 weekly — slightly more than $13 an hour. Another 82,000 freelance and contract workers (almost the size of Asheville), who typically do not qualify for any unemployment benefits are getting an average $450 per week ($11.25 an hour).
If the bill passed by the state House of Representatives last week becomes law by July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year, those same workers would likely have their benefits cut for the last month of the federal program to an average $235 weekly (about $5.90 an hour) and those freelance and contract workers will get $150 a week ($3.75 an hour).
In that single month at least $293 million — and some estimate it could be as much as $500 million — in federal funds will stay in Washington instead of being pumped into North Carolina’s economy.
If legislators want to get more people back to work sooner they should help by assuring them a living wage and not a minimum wage with buying power that’s dropped since it was set in 2008. North Carolina’s 12-year-old minimum of $7.25 an hour has dropped in purchasing power to just $5.95.
Our General Assembly should be working at ways to make job training more available and affordable, rather than looking at ways to penalize unemployed workers for their participation in these programs.
North Carolina needs to be positioned to move its businesses and labor force ahead. Economic policies must address both the interest of employers and workers. Focusing on only one or the other is a strategy for stagnation. That won’t do in a world where others — states and nations — will seize opportunities to move ahead.
Today’s editorial is from Capitol Broadcasting Company of Raleigh. The views expressed are not necessarily those of this newspaper.