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Massive Rates Of Unemployment In NC Could Spell Trouble For The Future Of Work

Chuck Liddy

North Carolina’s unemployment filings since March 16 hover just over 470,000, and about 87% of those claims are related to COVID-19. This amounts to years worth of claims that need to be processed in only a matter of weeks. 

The state Division of Employment Security hired 350 additional staff and opened a new call center to handle the influx of applications, but many North Carolinians say they are still facing many problems while trying to file. WUNC Capitol Bureau Chief Jeff Tiberii shares his reporting on Gov. Cooper’s changes to unemployment eligibility requirements and how the federal CARES Act influenced eligibility in North Carolina. And how will this economic crisis affect the future of work?

Diane Lim is the director of outreach and senior advisor for the Penn Wharton Budget Model. She says young, low income and minority workers are on the frontlines of the current economic crisis, but she feels optimistic that workers will be able to bounce back once the stay-at-home orders are lifted.

I think the economy is going to change on the basis of this too. And there's gonna be a lot of destruction and creation across different types of industries and sectors. - Steve McDonald

Steve McDonald is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University focusing on labor markets and economic inequality. Noncitizen workers and gig workers were already some of the most vulnerable laborers, he says, and the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic will force a reckoning with weaknesses in American work culture.

Host Frank Stasio speaks with guests about the economic consequences of the pandemic and how work will change because of it. 

Interview Highlights

Tiberii on the difficulties state unemployment office workers are facing:

You have these state employees who are doing … their absolute very best to process these hundreds of thousands of claims. And now plot twist: They're having to figure out how to verify and figure out how much money an Uber driver, for example, was making, or [how much] somebody who was self-employed was bringing in, so that they can check those folks out and connect them with federal benefits. And that's not been part of the state infrastructure. So it's layered, and it's complicated. And when you have half a million people who are applying for this relief, it's been an overwhelming moment.

Lim on what sets this economic crisis apart from recessions of the past:

I think that this experience is teaching everyone that sometimes there's no getting around a need for a strong, large role of government. This is a public crisis that can only be addressed through a very massive government intervention. - Diane Lim

A lot of these workers in the leisure and hospitality sector at least — they are still connected to their previous employers. In fact, they would probably label themselves as still working for those employers even though they're officially unemployed. That's because the hope is that the businesses can stay afloat, that the workers — even though they're not working and earning wages — can hang in there in terms of being able to pay their own bills. And that means that everyone can kind of be ready to get back to business more as usual, once the health crisis lifts for a bit.

McDonald on how this moment might change the future of work:

It would be good at least to start thinking about this as a potential new paradigm — the way that we're engaging in work — and rethink some of the types of policies that we have in place in order to address work-based issues. A lot of the social safety net provisions require that individuals are employed or looking for work. And I think this is potentially a problem in an economy where we see more fluidity with regards to what employment stability might actually look like. The other thing is health insurance being run directly through employers. This raises serious issues about whether or not in a new economy like this that this is an effective way to run policies to protect workers.

Credit NC Department of Commerce
This chart shows the number of unemployment claims in North Carolina from March 2-April 7.

Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Josie Taris left her home in Fayetteville in 2014 to study journalism at Northwestern University. There, she took a class called Journalism of Empathy and found her passion in audio storytelling. She hopes every story she produces challenges the audience's preconceptions of the world. After spending the summer of 2018 working in communications for a Chicago nonprofit, she decided to come home to work for the station she grew up listening to. When she's not working, Josie is likely rooting for the Chicago Cubs or petting every dog she passes on the street.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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