jobs_photo (copy)

Unemployment rate in North Carolina on the rise in wake of the pandemic crisis.

North Carolina has surpassed the $2 billion mark in paid federal and state unemployment-insurance benefit payments, the N.C. Division of Employment Security reported Monday.

The breakdown is: $1.17 billion from the federal pandemic unemployment compensation package; $621.1 million in state benefits, and $322.8 million in the federal pandemic unemployment assistance package.

With the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund at close to $3.85 billion before the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic began to be felt, 16.1% of that money had been used as of Monday morning.

The division listed 896,113 individuals as having filed a combined 1.2 million state and federal claims. DES said 537,641 claimants have received state and/or federal benefits, or 60% of all applicants.

Some individuals have been required to file a second claim — after being determined to be ineligible for initial state benefits — in order to qualify for federal benefits that often include extended state benefits.

About 18% of the 4.97 million North Carolinians considered in the state’s workforce as of mid-March have filed a state or federal unemployment claim.

There were 14,507 new claimants over the weekend. The daily filing peak was 34,706 on March 30.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported May 8 that the U.S. unemployment rate climbed from 4.4% in March to 14.7% in April. It’s the largest month-over-month increase since the bureau began compiling seasonally adjusted U.S. jobless reports in January 1948.

North Carolina faces its day of reckoning May 22 when its April jobless rate is released. Economists have projected a state jobless rate between 12% and 15%.

By comparison, the state jobless rate reached a 33-year peak of 10.9% in 2010 as the state and national economies began their slow recoveries from the Great Recession. The Triad peak was 11.5% in February 2009.

Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University, projects the N.C. April jobless rate to be similar to the U.S. rate or slightly higher.

“The next question is whether the April rate is the worst,” Walden said. “If the economy begins to open up, hopefully we’ll see some job creation in May.”

After a GOP supermajority in the legislature changed the state’s unemployment law in May 2013, $350 is the maximum amount beneficiaries can receive in jobless benefits, and 12 weeks is the maximum number of weeks they can collect.

The General Assembly began Monday the traditional start of the 2020 session.

House Bill 1061, introduced May 6 by state Rep. William Richardson, D-Cumberland, would remove the sliding scale and restore North Carolina’s maximum number of benefit weeks to 26.

It also would raise the maximum weekly benefit to $425, still below the $530 a week in state UI benefits provided before the law was changed in 2013. The bill has been sent to the House Finance committee.

The bill also would put into law providing short-term UI benefit compensation for employees whose employers reduces their normal hours of work per week, such as in a furlough situation.

“With federal money going away, we need to look at whether we want to up the amount of insurance we want to provide for people,” Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said May 4.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said May 4 he felt confident the Senate’s proposed increase in weekly UI payments to $400 would be considered once the legislative session resumes. The increase was included in the Senate’s relief package, but removed from the final version.

Because state unemployment benefits are on a sliding scale, the number of weeks can rise up to 20 weeks when the state unemployment rate is 9% or higher — which economists say it is highly likely to be exceeded by either the April or May jobless reports.

However, the sliding scale is activated only twice a year, on Jan. 1 and July 1 — both based on the average rate for first three months of a six-month cycle. That means January through March for the July 1 trigger, and July, August and September for the Jan. 1 trigger.

“We certainly want to assess where we stand with unemployment insurance trust fund over the next few weeks,” N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said May 4.

“I’m certainly open to consideration of all options.”

rcraver@wsjournal.com

336-727-7376

@rcraverWSJ

Load comments