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

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Chuck Liddy
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For WUNC

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.
 

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

Amanda Magnus grew up in Maryland and went to high school in Baltimore. She became interested in radio after an elective course in the NYU journalism department. She got her start at Sirius XM Satellite Radio, but she knew public radio was for her when she interned at WNYC. She later moved to Madison, where she worked at Wisconsin Public Radio for six years. In her time there, she helped create an afternoon drive news magazine show, called Central Time. She also produced several series, including one on Native American life in Wisconsin. She spends her free time running, hiking, and roller skating. She also loves scary movies.
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 first started posing questions to strangers after dinner at La Cantina Italiana, in Massachusetts, when he was two-years-old. Jeff grew up in Wayland, Ma., an avid fan of the Boston Celtics, and took summer vacations to Acadia National Park (ME) with his family. He graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, and moved to North Carolina in 2006. His experience with NPR member stations WAER (Syracuse), WFDD (Winston-Salem) and now WUNC, dates back 15 years.
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