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More than 200,000 North Carolinians receiving $300-per-week federal unemployment benefits will lose that money earlier than planned if Gov. Roy Cooper signs a bill passed Wednesday evening.
Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate passed a new version of a bill that they say will help understaffed businesses find more workers. It’s a state-level version of a national discussion over the status of the restaurant and tourism industries and the labor market for those low-paying jobs.
“With a severe labor shortage, now is no time to pay people extra money not to work,” said Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Republican from Hendersonville.
But Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro said the changes, if approved, would effectively take billions of dollars out of the North Carolina economy. Sen. Wiley Nickel, a Cary Democrat, asked Republicans to consider how the reduction would affect struggling individuals in their communities.
“If we were to pass this bill, it would take $300 a week away from folks who are struggling to pay rent, get back on their feet after a global pandemic,” Nickel said.
Several hundred thousand jobs have been added back to the hospitality industry since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, The News & Observer reported last week. But the industry is still about 80,000 workers short of where it was in February 2020.
“Nearly every restaurant in the Triangle is trying to hire workers — servers, bartenders and especially cooks,” The News & Observer reported.
Edwards, who has several McDonald’s restaurants in western North Carolina, is the Senate’s point person on unemployment issues. He previously had proposed a bill that would keep the $300 federal benefits, but also offer a $1,500 signing bonus, paid for with the same federal money, to people who got off unemployment and got a job.
That proposal passed the Senate and even won the support of half the Democrats, in addition to all the Republicans. Cooper also has expressed interest in the signing bonus idea, The News & Observer reported last month, signing an executive order to have the unemployment office look into options.
But Edwards’ earlier bill ran into ideological opposition from fellow Republicans in the N.C. House of Representatives and in Congress who did not like the idea of keeping the $300 unemployment benefits.
The version of the bill that passed Wednesday not only slashes those benefits, but also has no $1,500 signing bonuses. If the state stops taking that federal money, it won’t be able to use the funds to create the signing bonuses.
However, the bill would allocate an extra $250 million to child-care subsidies — something Democrats had called for in the past. And even though the unemployment and signing bonus elimination was a repudiation of Edwards’ earlier bill that had found bipartisan support, he still urged his colleagues to support it.
“The pandemic is largely behind us, and our state shouldn’t be stuck in mid-pandemic policies,” Edwards said.
The bill passed along party lines in the Senate with no Democrats voting for it. In the House, only three Democrats voted for it and one Republican voted against it. Some Democrats also publicly predicted that Cooper would veto the bill.
The bill wasn’t expected and wasn’t on the public calendar, but Senate staff told reporters it would be voted on a few minutes before the vote happened. Then, minutes after the Senate passed it, the House did the same thing.
Democratic Rep. Wesley Harris, an economist from Charlotte, criticized the rushed nature of the votes in addition to the substance of the bill. He said in addition to cutting off the federal benefits, it would also create stricter rules for people who are on state benefits to conduct “work search” activities or else lose their benefits.
“Our work search requirements were already some of the stingiest in the nation,” he said.
For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.
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