Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Legislators are picking on the unemployed

The News & Observer's Rob Christiansen took state legislators to task today over their dismantling of state unemployment benefits. Christiansen's column recounts the General Assembly's deep cuts in unemployment benefits following the Great Recession, leaving laid-off workers little cushion when they unexpectedly and through no fault of their own lose their jobs. The state had built up a big debt to the federal government for the benefits paid out when the state's unemployment rate soared after the 2008-09 financial collapse. The feds had to be repaid, but legislators put all the burden of that repayment on defenseless laid-off workers. Legislators cut the size of benefits designed to let workers put food on the table and keep their homes when the economy collapses beneath them. They also cut the length of time the unemployed can receive benefits, from 26 weeks to between 12 and 20 weeks. And then they made it harder for our laid off neighbors to remain eligible for benefits. Instead of documenting two job-seeking efforts per week, the new rules require five job applications per week.

Left nearly unscathed were the businesses that pay the unemployment tax. North Carolina's unemployment tax was among the lowest in the nation, which was one reason the state ran out of money when tens of thousands lost their jobs. The low tax rate was raised just a pinch so as not to burden businesses or their owners.

Legislators' actions suggest that they consider unemployed North Carolinians shiftless shirkers who are enjoying the time off from work while the state provides for them. Anyone who has been unemployed or who have been close to workers who've lost their jobs know that isn't the case. People who are fired for cause cannot receive unemployment. Only those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own are eligible. In a volatile economy, things happen. Downturns make it impractical to keep the number of employees a business once needed. Whole sectors of the economy disappear. Think about the video store business or newspaper business or the local hardware store when a Walmart moves next door.

Hard-working North Carolinians need an opportunity to make a transition to another job, maybe even another line of work. It takes time, especially in a deep recession, to find a job. Workers who cannot afford to move to a distant job have an even harder time. You can only commute so far.

I know the feeling. I was unemployed for a year after the newspaper I worked for laid off close to half its staff. Without unemployment benefits, I might have lost my home. I was fortunate that I had a working spouse and savings for emergencies such as a layoff. But I didn't lay around. I searched for jobs. I pursued jobs that were outside my field of knowledge and comfort level, but I made the effort. I wanted to work. I continued to get up at 5:30 each morning and stayed busy. I caught up on home repair tasks. I volunteered. I did a lot of writing. I tried to develop a home business but didn't get very far. I investigated getting certified as a lateral-entry public school teacher. I did all that I could to find work but was still off payrolls for a year before I landed a job paying about half my previous salary. Unemployment benefits got me through.

I also experienced the despair and depression common among the unemployed — the feeling of worthlessness, of being unable to support myself and my family, of failure. Unemployment hits you emotionally as well as financially.

Legislators who want to punish North Carolinians because they've lost a job just don't understand what it means to lose a job. They want to hit good men and women when they're down and helpless.

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