NC Senate Chamber

Senate chamber in the State Legislative building on December 11, 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

(The Center Square) – A bill that would replace federal unemployment benefits with back-to-work bonuses for unemployed North Carolinians was approved Tuesday by the North Carolina Senate.

Unemployed workers who accept jobs 30 days after the bill becomes law would receive a $1,500 bonus. Workers who accept jobs up to 60 days after it passes would receive $800. The money would be provided through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Benefits (FPUC) program if the U.S. Department of Labor approves it.

"I don't like the precedent of government paying able-bodied people to find a job, but this issue requires a solution," said Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, one of the bill's sponsors. "Employers can't hire people because government is paying them not to work, and we've got to fix it."

Proponents of the bill said it would save taxpayers money in the long run by shortening the length of time a person will be on unemployment, refueling the labor force and stimulating the economy. Under the measure, unemployed workers will receive half of the back-to-work bonuses after 30 days and the other half after 60 days.

The Senate approved the measure, an amended House Bill 128, on Tuesday, 34-11.

The North Carolina Department of Commerce's Division of Employment Security has paid more than $12 billion in federal and state unemployment benefits since March 2020.

While businesses in North Carolina have reopened, about 59% of the state's civilian labor force is employed, according to a North Carolina Department of Commerce report published May 21. North Carolina restaurants are down about 70,000 workers – or 17% of the industry's workforce – compared with before the pandemic, the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association reported.

North Carolina's unemployment rate has decreased by 8.5 percentage points since April 2020 – the peak of unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cooper ordered most businesses closed at the end of March 2020, pushing the unemployment rate to 13.5%.

HB 128 also would require claimants to respond to interview requests within 48 hours and employers to report claimants who do not. Unemployed workers could lose their benefits if they fail to respond to interview requests, schedule an interview in seven days, or show up for an interview or other reemployment activities.

Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, said the measure helps push the false narrative that North Carolinians are "lazy" and are unwilling to return to work. Nickel filed an amendment Tuesday to increase the current cap on unemployment benefits from $350 weekly to $500 weekly. It also would have exempted employers from unemployment insurance taxes for a year.

"That would cost about $300 million out of the [unemployment] trust fund. We would still have $2.4 billion, and we'd be able to give employers a break and let them pay workers a living wage," Nickel said.

The Senate tabled Nickel's amendment and another amendment by Sen. Natalie Murdock, D-Durham, to increase the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour.

HB 128 now heads back to the House for concurrence.

North Carolina Congressman Ted Budd, a Republican, has filed a federal bill to provide a one-time $900 payment – equal to three weeks of current FPUC benefits – for Americans to return to work.

"The current enhanced unemployment system has essentially created a stay-at-home bonus," Budd said at a news briefing Tuesday ahead of the Senate vote.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for five years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.