North Carolina Senate Approves $1,500 Back-to-Work Incentive

State Sen. Chuck Edwards has proposed a bill that would pay jobless residents for returning to the workforce, either $800 or $1,500 depending on how quickly they become employed.

(TNS) — The higher-than-usual unemployment benefits of the past year have gotten people into a habit of not working, North Carolina Republican politicians said Tuesday, pitching two different plans to pay unemployed people to go find a job.

The details of the plans differ. But the general philosophy is that some people have warmed up to the idea of long-term joblessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they need a jolt to go back to work. That jolt, they say, should be in the form of publicly funded signing bonuses intended to also help shorthanded businesses fill empty jobs.

"We've all heard from small businesses and job creators around the state, and they quite simply can't find workers," said U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, a Republican who represents parts of central North Carolina.

Budd has filed a bill in Congress to bring an early end to the federal government's additional unemployment payments of $300 a week — which are scheduled to run out in September — and instead pay unemployed people a $900 lump sum if they get a job.

His proposal doesn't have any Democratic co-sponsors, Budd said — probably not a good sign for its chances in the Democratic-majority Congress. But on Tuesday he was at the state legislature to help promote a similar bill that Republican legislators have introduced, and which passed through the N.C. Senate later in the day with some bipartisan support. It now goes to the N.C. House of Representatives, which also has a GOP majority.

But state legislators believe their plan can only work if Congress signs off on it, since they're the ones who originally approved the unemployment funds. Budd was at the legislature Tuesday in a sign of support, even though his proposal is not quite the same as the one moving through the General Assembly.

Like Budd's bill in Congress, the state-level bill would pay unemployed people if they get a job. But unlike Budd's bill, it would not take away extra federal benefits for people who stay unemployed. People who really can't find a job would still get the full amount of unemployment they qualify for, said Sen. Chuck Edwards, the bill's sponsor.

Staying on unemployment does require people to at least look for jobs. But paying them an extra boost — either $800 or $1,500, depending on how quickly they go back to work — might be what's needed to convince them to accept a job offer, he said.

"Lets face it, humans are a creature of habit," said Edwards, a Hendersonville Republican who is the state Senate's point person on unemployment issues. "And we've created a habit now, for 14 months, where many folks can simply get by and it's easier to not work than it is to work."

Not everyone agrees.

"A false narrative is being pushed that North Carolinians are lazy and don't want to work, which is just not true," said Sen. Wiley Nickel, a Cary Democrat, during the Senate's debate on the bill Tuesday.

Are Wages High Enough?

In the end, around a third of the Democrats voted for the bill. It passed the Senate 34-11. Some have said that while they do support the general idea of the signing bonuses, they think the state also needs to consider child care subsidies.

Some parents literally can't afford to work, they say, because wages are so low that many jobs pay less than what it costs to send a kid to day care.

In North Carolina the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, or $2.13 an hour for tipped jobs like waiters.

Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat, proposed an amendment to the bill Tuesday to raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour. Republicans shot that down, as well as an amendment from Nickel to increase unemployment benefits and give businesses a yearlong break from paying unemployment taxes.

"I think that most people want to go back to work," Murdock said. "However, some barriers need to be moved, and one barrier is our inability to pay living wages to people every day."

But Edwards told her he has heard that many businesses are starting to pay more than $7.25 even though they don't have to, so he doesn't see the need to raise the minimum wage. And he said that for some people who aren't working, it's more about a mindset than it is a question of wages.

"I've had manufacturers call me and say, 'Senator, I'm paying $20 an hour, $22 an hour, and I just can't find the workers I need,'" Edwards said.

The Numbers On Unemployment

On paper, the unemployment rate in North Carolina is not at emergency levels. It was a fairly normal 5 percent in May. That was better than the national average, and significantly better than the double-digit unemployment of last spring.

But the official unemployment rate doesn't count people who aren't looking for work — whether because they are in school, are staying at home with their children, or for any other reason.

And the state's share of non-workers is growing.

In North Carolina, the number of people either working or looking for work has shrunk by about 1.8 percent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In raw numbers that means there are around 92,000 fewer people in the state's labor force — which dropped from 5.1 million people to 5 million between February 2020 and April 2021.

Part of that can be explained by COVID-19 infections, but likely not all of it.

The pandemic has so far killed an estimated 13,000 people in North Carolina, many of them elderly. And at least a million people, or one in every 10 residents, has been infected — some with no symptoms but others with serious, long-lasting symptoms.

Edwards said the pandemic is now nearing an end, with vaccines available and mask mandates lifted, so the goal of the back-to-work signing bonuses is to help businesses fill jobs in the short term — but also to help individuals in the long term by getting them back into a more industrious state of mind.

"It's good for employers," he said. "And it's good for the workforce, too."

(c)2021 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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