NC lawmakers want Cooper to seek Trump’s extended benefits

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 12, 2020

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders asked Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday to get on board with extending unemployment benefits for workers displaced by the coronavirus pandemic that President Donald Trump has offered in an executive order.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger told  Cooper that the General Assembly plans to approve the state dollars required to receive the partially extended benefits when it reconvenes in early September. But they noted that the process also requires the governor to submit an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The action could result in at least another $300 per week for workers, retroactive to Aug. 1, when the $600-per-week federal pandemic payments ended.

A Cooper spokesperson this week criticized Trump’s decision to use federal natural disaster funds to pay for the benefits, which the president turned to when congressional Democrats and his administration failed to reach a deal using traditional sources. Dory MacMillan said on Monday that it was a bad idea “especially when forecasters predict high hurricane activity” this year.

But Berger and Moore told Cooper that unemployment benefits are commonly offered by FEMA following disasters and have been accepted by the governor’s administration after previous hurricanes.

“That you would accept Disaster Unemployment Assistance in other disasters but object to similar assistance during this disaster only fuels concern that you may withhold $300 per week to the unemployed so as not to give President Trump credit,” Moore and Berger said in their letter.

The state would have to offer an amount equal to $100 per weekly benefit to receive the $300. Matching funds are accessible — North Carolina still has close to $3 billion in its unemployment benefit reserve after five months of massive distributions of state unemployment benefits. The state jobless rate neared 13% in the spring.

Cooper’s office didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting comment on the letter.

Berger and Moore’s offices wrote that Cooper should apply quickly to speed up the benefit process. By waiting too long, they said, the federal disaster relief account could fall below a monetary threshold that could shut off benefits.

Sen. Wiley Nickel, a Wake County Democrat, criticized legislative Republicans on Tuesday for failing to return to work this summer to raise the maximum unemployment state benefit above $350 per week. Nickel called Moore and Berger’s unemployment insurance policy “intentionally cruel” given the state’s reserves.

“We need to throw jobless workers a lifeline,” said Nickel, who sponsored legislation to raise the maximum state benefit to $450 per week. “North Carolinians are suffering and it’s our job to help them.”

More than 1.2 million people in North Carolina have applied for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began, according to the Division of Employment Security, with close to $6.9 billion in federal and state benefits paid.