This story was last updated at 3:40 p.m. on Wednesday, April 1. We will continue to update it periodically.
In a typical week, North Carolina’s unemployment office receives about 3,000 claims. Last week, when businesses started to close their doors, the state received more than 30 times that amount.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues its spread across the state, Governor Roy Cooper’s mandated closure of various small businesses has flooded North Carolina’s unemployment office with applications.
Restaurant, brewery, and other hospitality industry employees have sought relief after being furloughed or laid off. Cooper’s latest executive order requires hair salons, barber shops, and gyms to close, so expect another surge of unemployment applications to come.
From March 16 through March 30, the state processed 332,773 unemployment claims. Approximately 87 percent (290,703) of those were COVID-19 related, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce and Division of Employment Security (DES).
The state recently loosened some restrictions on getting unemployment benefits amid the surge in demand. But it’s still not necessarily an easy process for everyone. And the aid you get through the state may not be enough to pay all your bills.
Many of those who have tried to apply for unemployment benefits have found the process frustrating. It’s hard to get through to a live agent over the phone, for instance. And the website crashed last week — plus, it’ll lock you out if you forget your username or password.
“The second things started getting shut down, we knew that it wasn’t like the recession, where it would slowly creep up and then you’d be in the thick of it before it slowly went away,” says Larry Parker, spokesman for the DES.
“This ramped up extremely quickly.”
With the unemployment surge, the process of filing for benefits can be confounding, particularly for those who are doing it for the first time. Here’s how it works:
How to apply: You can apply for unemployment in North Carolina one of two ways — online here or by phone ( 888-737-0259). The state DES strongly encourages you to do it online if possible, though. Online, the process usually takes 20-25 minutes, Parker says. The application asks a number of questions about your unemployment status, including the reason for your layoff or furlough.
Once you submit your application, your former employer has 10 days to respond. Essentially, they just have to confirm that your job was cut or that your hours were reduced. Then the DES will decide whether you are “monetarily eligible” to receive benefits.
The maximum you’ll get paid is $350 per week for up to 20 weeks. (That max payout would equal $8.75 per hour, before taxes, assuming you work 40 hours per week.)
The earliest anyone is going to receive their benefits is within two weeks, Parker says.
Don’t forget: If you want to continue receiving benefits, you have to go back into the system and file a certification every Sunday. The certification should only take a few minutes, but it’s essential.
“If you don’t file a weekly certification, the assumption on the system’s end is that you’ve gone back to work,” Parker says.
Who is excluded: Independent contractors are not typically eligible for unemployment benefits in North Carolina because they’re not tied to an employer, Parker says.
That would exclude a wide range of workers in our area, including Uber/Lyft drivers, freelance writers/photographers, and real estate agents, to name a few. Self-employed individuals also aren’t usually eligible, either.
Zoom out: Cooper’s executive order on March 17 required that bars, restaurants, and breweries close for dine-in service. The order also expanded unemployment benefits to accommodate the surge in applicants because of the outbreak. Here are some details about changes to unemployment benefits:
- No one-week waiting period to apply for unemployment benefits
- A person does not need to be looking for another job to qualify for unemployment. This is important because once businesses reopen, many will want to rehire their same employees back
- If an employee kept their job but had hours cut, they could qualify for unemployment benefits on case-by-case basis
- All unemployment applications can now be done remotely
- Business won’t be responsible to help pay for former employees’ benefits in cases related to coronavirus, as is typical with other unemployment benefits
Federal aid: The $2 trillion federal stimulus bill the Senate approved late Wednesday includes additional unemployment benefits for those who are out of work. The bill includes an additional $600 per week for four months for jobless Americans, The Washington Post reports. This would be on top of the money the state pays out. The additional federal payout would also benefit gig economy workers and freelancers, who usually wouldn’t benefit for North Carolina unemployment.
A few senators, including Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, objected to the addition of expanded unemployment benefits. The senators said that the benefits might not incentivize people to re-enter the workforce because in some cases, people may make more money on unemployment than they would at their jobs.
The House will vote on the bill Friday morning.
Parker says that the state’s unemployment office has taken steps to speed up the processing of claims.
Last week, the office upgraded its server, for instance. The call center is taking thousands of calls per day, and staffers are working overtime and on the weekends.
We tried to reach the office several times this week, and all calls were unsuccessful.
“Our call volumes are unusually high at this time and we are unable to provide personal service,” the recording says. “Thank you for your patience and understanding during this unusual time.”