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FEMA approves North Carolina request for unemployment boost

North Carolina has been approved for a federal boost in unemployment benefits that would grant people out of work because of COVID-19 an additional $300 a week.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, announced the approval Friday afternoon, a day after North Carolina submitted its application. Fourteen other states have already had their applications approved for a share of the fund, which is capped at $44 billion.

The NC Division of Employment Security, part of Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, applied for about $321 million. The FEMA announcement did not say how much money North Carolina would receive.

It said FEMA would work with Cooper to “implement a system to make this funding available.”

Workers could get the payments retroactively for the first three weeks of August, but it’s not clear when that money might arrive.

The $300 supplemental payment is less than the $600 a week that expired at the end of July after Congress couldn’t reach a deal to extend benefits. It’s also less than the $400 that President Donald Trump announced he would authorize by redirecting FEMA disaster relief money.

The state DES said it applied for the $300-per-person funding after it learned that money from the state unemployment insurance trust fund, which normally funds unemployment benefits, may not be used to pay what it called “optional additional $100 supplement match funds.”

State legislators have said that they would vote to allocate funds for the state’s share. Pat Ryan, spokesperson for Senate leader Phil Berger, told The News & Observer Friday that the legislature could draw from leftover funds from the federal CARES Act or authorize the governor to dip into the insurance trust fund.

“We’ll provide more information as it becomes available,” wrote DES spokesperson Kerry McComber in an email to the N&O.

To receive the benefit, workers must be eligible for at least $100 per week in unemployment benefits from existing benefit programs, including part-time workers and contract workers receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Workers must be unemployed or partially unemployed due to COVID-19 to be eligible.

Extra work for the state

Officials say that the program creates additional burdens for the state in providing assistance for jobless North Carolinians.

In a memo published Thursday, DES Assistant Secretary Pryor Gibson wrote that “a more timely way to fund additional benefits for people in need would be to use the existing unemployment systems and programs already … in place instead of implementing an entirely new program.”

McComber said the program requires DES to “reprogram its benefits system” to determine eligibility and to “set up the accounting process necessary to access grant funds and make payments.”

In a news conference last week, Cooper said that the federal government should instead renew the $600-a-week benefit and that Republican lawmakers in North Carolina should also expand the state’s benefits.

“The best way to do this would be for Congress and the president to agree on funding the program that already exists instead of this new program in a different agency that’s going to have to be administered in a different way,” Cooper said in another news conference Tuesday.

“However, if that’s the only option for North Carolina, we want to take it,” Cooper said.

The federal program’s expiration left North Carolina residents with one of the lowest unemployment benefits in the country. At the end of 2019, the average weekly benefit in North Carolina was $277, while the national average was $378.

“People need help now and the Trump approach creates an incredible amount of administrative burdens,” said Sen. Wiley Nickel in an interview with the N&O on Friday. “You have to create a whole new machine for DES to do this and that takes time, and it takes staff resources.”

Nickel, a Democrat from Wake County said that many of his constituents have called DES for help accessing benefits over the last few months and that the demands of administering this new program could take staff away from helping workers.

According to McComber, “DES will continue to dedicate the resources and staffing necessary to assist claimants who need assistance.”

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Sophie Kasakove is a Report for America Corps member covering the economic impacts of the coronavirus. She previously reported on the environment, big industry and development as a freelance reporter in New Orleans.

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