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State committee makes progress on COVID-19 relief bills

By Liz Moomey

liz.moomey@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The N.C. House’s COVID-19 Economic Support Working Group on Tuesday moved closer to finishing three bill drafts that look to address concerns of employees, employers and small businesses during the pandemic.

In its third meeting on Tuesday, the bipartisan group of representatives heard about unemployment benefits, which included the overview of federal programs enacted by the CARES Act, a stimulus bill passed in late March. The group also heard an update by the Division of Employment Security, potential relief to taxpayers and from leaders from the National Federation of Independent Business and the NC Chamber about industry impacts.

Rep. Julia Howard, R-67, is the co-chair of the working group, and Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, is a member. Both represent parts of Salisbury or Rowan County.

Members discussed the creation of three bills in particular: the COVID-19 Unemployment Insurance Response Act; Unemployment Insurance Laws Technical, Clarifying, and Administrative Changes: and COVID-19 Tax Relief Act.

Howard expressed her desire to combine the three bills to “get on the floor, vote and get these bills out as soon as we could.”

The Unemployment Insurance Response Act, which was introduced during the groups first meeting on March 25, will would allow flexibility in determining who can file for unemployment, the waiting period and work search.

The other proposed Unemployment Insurance act will allow employers to file a claim on behalf of their employers. Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary for N.C. Employment Security, said his department has the ability to put this change into place, but they need the authorization.

Having the employer file is thought to quicken the process. Currently, when the employee files, the employer must respond in 10 days. With the change, Taylor’s office wouldn’t have to wait for that response. They would also know when the employer is back open for business.

Taylor on Tuesday also addressed issues people have been filing are facing. As of Tuesday morning, North Carolina has seen more than 450,000 unemployment claims, or about 21,000 claims per day for the past three weeks.

Last week, they received 270,000 calls.

Taylor said “it’s volume, volume, volume” but that those who have filed can still expect to receive payment within about 14 days.

Taylor said username and password resets have been an issue. More people in the office will be helping, he said.

“We’re trying to get that system better, but that has certainly been very frustrating on our behalf, because that should be the last thing that we should have to worry about is people’s ability to get in,” Taylor said.

Server capacity to handle the amount of claims has also been an issue. Taylor said he is happy that the system could handle the 450,000 claims, but understands frustrations and said he continues to work to fix the system’s problems.

Taylor said the department also has added 50 people to its call center, but soon realized it was “a grain of sand in the Sahara.” By the end of the week, another 150 will be added who are trained to take claims, help employers and reset passwords.

Taylor admitted he was overwhelmed with the amount of emails he has received, up to 300 in a day, with questions from constituents.

Co-chair of the legislative group Rep. Jason Saine, R-97, said he understands the pressure the Division Employment Security is under.

“This is something that no one had planned for,” Saine said. “This is unlike anything  you or anyone else has dealt with and we also try to encourage our constituents to be patient and we try to understand their frustration, we do hear that.”

The third bill discussed Tuesday, would officially extend the franchise, corporate income and individual income tax payment deadline from April 15 to July 15.

Gregg Thompson, the NC State director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the organization conducts a monthly survey. And March’s survey showed the largest monthly decline in small business optimism in the survey’s history, 47 years.

Thompson said the survey shows 92% of small business owners nationally have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 pandemic. Half of the businesses will not last more than two months under the current economic conditions, 15% will likely last less than one month and 35% will not last two months.

“Those are some sobering statistics and numbers that we are dealing with,” Thompson said.

Ray Starling, general counsel for the NC Chamber, said the impact of COVID-19 can’t last forever. Small business owners need answers to “how do we turn this back on?” and “what are we looking for?”

“The notion that I’ll know it when I see it really doesn’t give me, as a business owner, the confidence I need to go back out and put those employees back on the payroll,” Starling said.

The working group will meet again next Tuesday to decide combining the proposed bills and if the proposals are ready to be introduced to the House.

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