The top official for the Cooper administration’s employment security agency has been reassigned and a former Democratic legislator has been named as successor.

Tony Copeland, the state’s Commerce secretary, said in a statement Wednesday that Lockhart Taylor is no longer serving as assistant secretary for the N.C. Division of Employment Security. Taylor has been reassigned within Commerce.

Pryor Gibson took over as assistant secretary, effective immediately. Gibson served as a N.C. House representative from Anson County before resigning to become a senior adviser to former Gov. Bev Perdue.

Copeland said Gibson “is a forceful presence to lead DES during this unprecedented economic stress.”

Gibson had been serving as director of Hometown Strong, Gov. Roy Cooper’s initiative to assist businesses in rural communities by focusing on infrastructure improvement, broadband access and workforce training. He previously served as director of Business Services at N.C. Division of Workforce Solutions.

“I am ready to take on the challenges at DES helping people get back on their feet and back in the economy,” Gibson said.

Taylor became the public face of the state’s unemployment insurance benefits system once the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic began to be felt in mid-March. He made numerous appearances during Cooper’s press events and before several legislative working groups addressing the pandemic.

DES’ overall sluggish response to the crisis during March and April — particularly as individuals waited hours on the phone or for days trying to complete their online claim — drew bipartisan criticism from legislators.

It eventually became a source of frustration for Cooper even as Taylor oversaw a recent increase in DES and contract staff to handle the waves of claims.

Taylor’s reassignment came even though about 64% of the state’s 955,815 UI benefit claimants have received benefits as of Wednesday and $2.78 billion in state and federal UI benefits have been paid.

“This shake-up signals that Gov. Cooper has come to the realization that something needs to change at the Division of Employment Security,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.

“You can’t force thousands of businesses to close, sending hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians into unemployment, then fall down on the job of getting unemployment benefits to those affected workers.

“But that’s the situation we’ve been seeing for weeks,” Kokai said.

Kokai said Gibson “has an extensive background at the highest levels of Democratic government operations, including strong ties with the legislature and the executive branch.”

DES reported separately Wednesday that the 955,815 claimants have filed a combined 1.33 million state and federal claims. DES said 608,390 claimants have received state and/or federal benefits.

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.

With the drop in the labor force over the month, currently 23.9% of the 3.99 million North Carolinians considered in the state’s workforce as of mid-April have filed a state or federal unemployment claim.

There were 14,777 new claimants Tuesday. The daily filing peak was 34,706 on March 30.

The overall unemployment benefits payment breakdown is: $1.51 billion from the federal pandemic unemployment-compensation package; $738.5 million in state benefits, and $520.2 million in the federal pandemic unemployment-assistance package; and $11 million in pandemic-emergency unemployment compensation.

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, 19.2% of that money had been used as of Wednesday morning.

Commerce reported Friday the state’s unemployment rate nearly tripled from 4.3% in March to 12.2% in April, a stark reflection of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the state’s economy.

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