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NC ranks worst in the country for timely unemployment payments

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, North Carolina ranked last in the United States for fulfilling unemployment benefits in a timely manner.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As more than 325,000 people out of work in North Carolina continue to wait for their unemployment benefits, federal data show North Carolina ranked worst in the country for fulfilling timely unemployment claims before the COVID-19 pandemic and still remains at the bottom today.

The North Carolina Division of Employment Security tells claimants if there are no issues, "people typically receive payment within about 14 days of filing their initial claim." 

However, United States Department of Labor Unemployment Insurance Performance Management data show North Carolina scored the lowest rating for first payment time-lapse 14/21 days in the country at the end of 2019 and for the first three months of 2020.

Even as the state slightly improved its rating in the first quarter of 2020, in both cases, the state's ratings are well below the national average.

Shaquania Burgess knows about a lengthy wait. Out of work for more than two months, Burgess was out of money at the end of May.

"I got laid off on March 6," she said. "It's been devastating for me. I still have bills, I've maxed out my credit cards, I've used up my savings. It's been hard."

The Charlotte woman said she filed for unemployment in March, but like so many others, encountered problem after problem with the NC DES.

"When you have to call numerous times and just can't get through or it hangs up on you and you have to call back in the queue, it's just been extremely stressful, because you don't know if you're going to get any payment," Burgess said.

While she struggled, the agency added staff to help handle claims on April 3. 

About a month after Burgess filed for unemployment, the state tripled its employees to meet the "unprecedented surge in unemployment claims," but records show by then, people had already filed more than 636,000 claims, most COVID-19-related. 

Roughly half of all claims to date came in that first month, according to state records.

Rep. Chaz Beasley (D), NC-92 said his family members are facing unemployment uncertainty too.

"I would have liked to see the changes made faster," Rep. Beasley said. "I've had to call in myself for things too. I have family members that are dealing with this, so I know personally how frustrating it can be if you don't know, if you're sending that email if someone is going to get back to you, if you're making that call if someone is going to get back to you."

He said the system is so stressed, even legislators are having trouble getting results for their constituents.

"That's sad," Rep. Beasley said. "I wish that we could just say that we could wave a magic wand and get this thing fixed immediately, but we want people to get their benefits and get them quickly, so we want to be honest."

Amid mounting pressure, Gov. Roy Cooper changed the agency's leadership last week.

"I want to make sure those benefits get into the hands of those people as quickly as possible," he said the following day.

As of today, the state reports it has paid 666,904 of 992,762 individual claims from March 15 to June 2. NC DES reports 1.4 million claims filed in all, which could include duplicates.

For Burgess, persistence thankfully paid off. After more than two months of calling and waiting, she received her first payment this week, but she said it wasn't easy.

"I called every day. The first lady I talked to, I thought she escalated it, then I talked to somebody after that. They were going to send that information to the supervisor. The supervisor never called, so then I called again, spoke with someone else, found out the first lady never escalated the claim. I think after probably the fourth or fifth day, I spoke to the right person and got transferred to a higher tier," Burgess said. "It was a long time coming. I was able to receive it right before rent was due."

In a statement Wednesday, the North Carolina Department of Commerce continued to maintain a claim with "no issues" usually takes 14 days or less.

"Every claim is different, and eligibility is determined on the specifics of each claim..." Communications Director David Rhoades said. "...If information is missing or does not match up, it can take longer for us to determine eligibility and issue payment. Our Division of Employment Security (DES) reviews both State Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), and each program has its own requirements for eligibility. In order to receive PUA, a person must first be found ineligible for UI. People who work as independent contractors, for example, will likely file claims for both programs but we have to assess the first before the second claim can be handled."

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