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People whose hours are cut could receive unemployment benefits. Gov. announces that, other measures to ease filing requirements.

Gov. Roy Cooper, trying to get ahead of the coronavirus’ impact on the state’s job market, issued an executive order Tuesday that he said would “take down some barriers to unemployment benefits.”

The order went into effect at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

The biggest concern is the financial blow to service-sector businesses, such as bars and restaurants, after being ordered by Cooper to close indoor dining for an indefinite period. Grocery and convenience stores can remain open, but can’t serve sit-down meals.

Knowing that Cooper’s order likely was coming, given similar decisions by other governors, many restaurants already had responded by closing or laying off staff as they try to transition to takeout and delivery meals that require fewer employees.

“North Carolina must keep fighting this pandemic with the right weapons,” Cooper said.

“We realize these steps will cost people their jobs, and we hope this executive order will help bring some relief.”

Among the key elements of the order:

  • Waiving the one-week waiting period to receive benefits;
  • Allowing applicants to file for benefits if they are subject to reduced hours as well as laid off;
  • Removing the requirement that recipients have to look for work during the benefits period.

“Workers want to work and businesses want to stay open, but they can’t,” Cooper said. “We know restaurants and bars will want to re-hire employees once this crisis subsides.”

The N.C. Commerce Department said the fastest and most efficient way to apply for unemployment benefits is to visit its website at des.nc.gov. A customer call center can be reached at (888) 737-0259.

Lowest in country

The executive order was needed to amend a state law passed in June 2013 by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

The law reduced the number of unemployment insurance benefit weeks from 26 to 12, and the maximum benefit amount from $535 to $350 per week.

North Carolina and Florida have the lowest number of benefit weeks in the country.

The number of UI benefit weeks remains on a sliding scale based on the state unemployment rate and could increase to 20 weeks with a spike in the jobless rate.

Cooper said he is aware that the virus that causes COVID-19 may soon test the flexibility and effectiveness of North Carolina’s shrunken UI program.

Economists forecast that as many as 2.5 million North Carolinians may be at high- or moderate-risk for a layoff, reduced wages, tips and work hours, or furloughs.

There are an increasing number of retailers closing for several weeks, some pledging to continue paying their employees, while others have not disclosed plans.

Cooper said the executive order also allows waivers of in-person interview requirements for UI benefits.

Employers also will not be charged additional state UI benefit taxes for employees who lose their jobs related to COVID-19. Employers pay a UI payroll tax based on their number of workers, with the rate rising with the level of job cuts.

The General Assembly changed state law in 2017 to ensure that applicants for benefits paid during federal disaster declarations are not required to wait a week or show a job search if unemployed due directly to an event covered by a federal disaster declaration.

Legislative response

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said the state’s $3.9 billion Unemployment Trust Fund “is ready to activate with emergency measures that support families hurting from the economic impact of the COVID-19 response.”

“Those who are missing paychecks and bearing the brunt of these drastic economic measures need immediate access and support from these benefits and can have confidence our state will provide another robust disaster response,” Moore said.

Several Triad legislators said there’s talk about having a potential special session on the UI program.

“It is top of mind for a lot of legislators trying to help their fellow North Carolinians,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.

Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, and co-chair of a joint oversight committee on healthcare, said legislators “are assessing the needs of the immediate health threats and what those needs might be.”

“The economic impact is real and we will certainly be looking at ways to lessen the negative outcome. Many in our communities are already feeling this impact and we will certainly do what we can to offer assistance.

“Hopefully, it will be a short timeframe facing the unemployment situation and our citizens will be back to work quickly.”

Great economic experiment?

Analysts say that for North Carolinians seeking UI benefits in the near term, finding out how much they can receive and the limitations on number of weeks may come as a rude awakening.

“Many people in North Carolina are about to discover that the changes didn’t reform North Carolina’s ... unemployment insurance system, but rather, they effectively dismantled it,” said John Quinterno, a principal with South by North Strategies Ltd., a Chapel Hill research company specializing in economic and social policy.

“We are about to run a great social and economic experiment about what happens to our economy, people, and communities when workers lose jobs through no fault of their own on a massive scale for a prolonged period of time.”

The UI benefit cuts was the main element of a controversial strategy to eliminate a $2.8 billion debt to the U.S. Labor and Treasury departments that helped pay extended jobless benefits during the Great Recession of 2008-11.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the fourth quarter of 2019, N.C. workers received an average weekly UI benefit of $277, with an average duration of 8.7 weeks — last in the country.

Less than 10% of jobless workers in N.C. received UI benefits, also last in the country.

By comparison, North Carolina ranked 24th in the nation before the 2013 changes went into effect.

“Unfortunately, at a time when workers need help the most, North Carolina’s system is serving too few jobless workers for too short a time and providing too little in financial assistance,” the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center said Tuesday.

“We know that changes have made the state’s UI system among the worst in the nation. Fixing those issues is necessary to ensure N.C. communities can get through not just the immediate impacts, but the potential long-term ripple effects of an economic downturn.”

Benefit levels

Legislative supporters of the reduced UI benefits have said they were “too rich” before 2012, deterring unemployed people from pursing new work, including part- and full-time jobs that would leave them underemployed for their skill sets.

During the height of the Great Recession, some individuals received up to 99 weeks of regular and extended state and federal UI benefits.

The cuts in funding have played the primary role in establishing the $3.9 billion surplus in the state’s UI Fund.

According to the N.C. Justice Center, employers bore about 22% of the UI trust fund repayment burden through a temporary increase in the unemployment insurance tax they pay, while beneficiaries bore 73% through reduced benefits.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a statement Tuesday that “reforms put in place years ago helped build that large balance to allow the state to adjust its benefits program in response to an economic downturn.”

“What adjustments to the state program might be necessary will become clearer once we have more finality on what the federal program will look like.”

Limited interest

In April 2019, a group of N.C. House Democrats submitted a bill that would restore UI benefits to their pre-2013 levels of a maximum of 26 weeks.

House Bill 713 also would eliminate having to wait more than one week before benefits begin, and allow people to collect benefits who left employment because of spousal relocation, illness or undue hardship.

The bill was sent to the Rules and Operations committee of the House where it has not been heard.

Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said “we’re likely to hear calls for North Carolina to liberalize its unemployment compensation rules.”

“I would not be surprised to see legislators give the idea serious consideration.”

However, Kokai added that “I am certain lawmakers will be unwilling to dig themselves back into the hole that they escaped during the past decade.”

“They won’t agree to borrow multiple billions of dollars from the feds for unemployment benefits without regard for how they will pay the money back.

“If state-based benefits change, lawmakers will have some plan to pay for it.”

Legislation that has cleared the U.S. House provides $1 billion in 2020 for emergency grants to states to assist with processing and paying unemployment insurance.

Half of those funds would be used to provide immediate additional funding to all states for staffing, technology and other administrative costs. The other half would be used for emergency grants to states that experienced at least a 10% increase in unemployment.

Previous worry

Since North Carolina’s UI benefits were slashed, there has been an underlining worry among some economists that North Carolina would be ill-prepared for waves of unemployment claims during the next recession.

There’s also been concern that most North Carolinians are not aware of the reduced level of UI benefits, along with what the qualifications are for individuals temporarily laid off, most likely in the service sector.

Some businesses have pledged to continue to pay employees through their initial temporary closing periods, but cautioned their policies are subject to change depending on the severity of the pandemic.

A high-profile report released in June by the non-profit National Employment Law Project determined North Carolina was one of eight states that may be ill-prepared to adequately serve the needs of the jobless during the next recession because of the UI benefit restrictions.

The other states highlighted are Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The group examined how state UI programs have been weakened by benefit cuts and policies that discourage unemployed workers from even applying for aid.

Michele Evermore, co-author of the law project’s report, said the real test of the socioeconomic experiments in North Carolina and the other seven states “will come when the next recession hits — will enough people have sufficient compensation to avoid catastrophe?”

“We don’t know the answer because we haven’t experienced a recession with these policies in place.”

N.C. governor bars dining in at restaurants, warns of community spread of COVID-19 virus likely occurring. For now, all cases in state linked to travel.

In order to slow the continued spread of the COVID-19 in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order Tuesday morning ordering all restaurants and bars in the state to close dine-in services, effective at 5 p.m.

And in Winston-Salem, Mayor Allen Joines said he would announce the creation of a “significant” community fund today to help people affected by job losses or other crises during the coronavirus pandemic.

As of Tuesday, there were at least 40 reported cases of the new coronavirus in the state, including three in the Triad. The newest Triad case is a Guilford County resident who started showing symptoms after travelling to Orlando, Fla. That person is in self-isolation, according to the Guilford County Department of Public Health.

“We know there will be many more to come,” Cooper said at a Tuesday press briefing. Every case can be traced to travel. However, Cooper said community spread has likely started and is yet to show up in testing.

Cooper’s executive order also includes an expansion of unemployment benefits, easing the criteria to obtain benefits. Notably, people applying for unemployment benefits because of COVID-19-related layoffs will no longer have to wait a week to file or complete an in-person interview. Employers won’t pay additional unemployment insurance taxes for employment cuts related to COVID-19.

On Saturday, Cooper issued an executive order closing all public schools in the state and banning gatherings of 100 or more people until at least March 30. People or businesses found in violation of the order could be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“This will be a long and difficult road for us to travel but we are North Carolinians, and we are resilient,” Cooper said.

On Monday, President Donald Trump introduced guidelines calling for people to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Restaurants will be permitted to offer takeout and delivery services, according to Cooper.

Many Winston-Salem restaurateurs said they were expecting the order from the governor after seeing similar moves in other states. Several restaurants had already closed their doors completely as of Monday, and dozens of others had made the switch to takeout or delivery only.

“I figured it was only a matter of time,” said Dana Moody, who completely closed West End Coffeehouse a day before the governor’s announcement. “If you’ve been watching what’s happened around the world and in other states, it’s not a surprise.”

Claire Calvin, the owner of Canteen Market Bistro, The Porch Kitchen and Alma Mexicana, said she already has laid off about 75% of her workforce so that they are eligible to file for unemployment. She said that Canteen and The Porch are ramping up production for takeout and delivery, focusing on frozen meals and such prepared foods as casseroles.

“I have been expecting that to happen since Sunday,” Calvin said. “On the one hand, I wanted to keep everybody working. On the other hand, I didn’t want to expose anybody to risk. So it’s good to have this clarity.”

Though Canteen and The Porch will continue to operate, Calvin said, she expects Alma Mexicana will close.

Vivian Joiner, a co-owner of Sweet Potatoes, said Tuesday’s lunch was the restaurant’s last meal before closing for the duration of the ban. Its sister restaurant next door, Miss Ora’s Kitchen, will remain open for takeout.

“Miss Ora’s was already about 50% takeout, so we’re set up for that,” Joiner said. Miss Ora’s also will offer curbside pickup.

“Right now, I’m planning to rotate employees so everyone can get at least something in their pockets,” Joiner said.

Michael Millan, the chef and a co-owner of Mary’s Gourmet Diner, said he encourged his employees to file for unemployment benefits.

“This is one of the most stressful things I’ve had to deal with my entire life, and I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15,” said Millan, 37. “We’ve just been rolling with the punches. Nobody’s experienced anything like this. I think the thing people lose focus on is our margins are very thin, our employees are the lowest paid of any industry, and we have a perishable inventory — it’s like the holy trinity of messed-up circumstances.”

Cooper said he expects most restaurants and bars will hire back their employees once the pandemic is over.

The majority of COVID-19 cases are in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday. In addition to the Guilford County case, there are two cases in Forsyth County, one case in Iredell County and one case in Watauga County. Other affected counties are Brunswick, Cabarrus, Chatham, Craven, Durham, Harnett, Johnston, Onslow, Sampson, Wayne and Wilson.

“Since we have this first confirmed case, we anticipate additional positive testing,” Dr. Iulia Vann, Guilford County’s interim public-health director, said in a statement. “The county is heavily monitoring this case and will continue to address future cases as they arise.”

Joines said the fund he is announcing today is being set up by the Winston-Salem Foundation, the United Way and other groups as a way for the community to pool its resources to help people who need it.

“It will be a good kickoff for the fund,” the Winston-Salem mayor said, declining to name the amount of money the fund could start with. “We will still be raising money. We have had a lot of individuals say ‘How can I help?’ We wanted to create a vehicle for individuals and others who want to help.”

Joines added that one purpose of the fund would be to help people left jobless by the fallout from the coronavirus restrictions. With Joines in the announcement will be Cindy Gordineer, the president and chief executive of the United Way of Forsyth County, and Scott Wierman, the president of the Winston-Salem Foundation and a member of the Forsyth County commissioners.

In a separate effort, city of Winston-Salem officials said they would be working with groups to provide takeout dinners three times a week at the city recreation centers for children up to age 18. The plans have not yet been finalized.

City Manager Lee Garrity said the city will aid restaurants by helping supply traffic cones and signs for drive-up delivery services and takeout lines.

City staff members have been meeting daily in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are in unchartered water, where the view changes almost hourly,” Garrity, the city manager, wrote in an email sent to the mayor and members of the city council.

Speaking of the council, that panel’s March 23 meeting was canceled Tuesday Garrity said the city is still working on the logistics of staying within the 10-person limit on public gatherings that federal officials are recommending.

Nationally, there are at least 3,563 people with COVID-19, according to government health officials. At least 68 people have died from the virus. In North Carolina, the State Laboratory of Public Health has tested 376 specimens and has supplies to test an additional 1,350 specimens. Private laboratories and university medical systems also have testing capacity, and have tested thousands of specimens, according to Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina’s secretary of health and human services.

Speaking on Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough’s podcast, Joshua Swift, Forsyth County’s public health director, said most people who have the virus will experience mild symptoms within two to 14 days of being exposed.

COVID-19 symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

“Most people have mild symptoms and they don’t require hospitalization, although there have been reports of severe illness and there’s a small percent that have died,” Swift said. “Well obviously we’re all at risk at being infected with COVID-19. You may be young and healthy. You may have symptoms or you may not exhibit symptoms, but you could pass that along.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local health departments, are urging people to practice social distancing, to constantly wash their hands and to avoid touching their faces.

August Vernon, the director of Forsyth County Emergency Services, also appeared on the podcast, and urged people to remain vigilant, yet calm, saying, “We’ve been here before.

“In the past 20 years we had issues and concerns with anthrax, with small pox, with SARS, and, reminder, we did go through a pandemic in 2009 with H1N1,” Vernon said.

The COVID-19 virus is transferred mainly from person to person through coughing and sneezing or from close personal contact. It may be possible that a person can pick up the COVID-19 virus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their face.

6 city council members in isolation, as are 2 Winston-Salem employees after potential COVID-19 exposure

Six of the eight members of the Winston-Salem City Council, along with two city staffers, are in self-isolation after attending a Washington conference organized by the National League of Cities last week.

It turns out that two people — not from here — who attended the conference have been confirmed to have tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus.

National League of Cities officials sent the word out Tuesday afternoon. Joshua Swift, health director in Forsyth County, recommended the self-isolation for the local people who attended the conference. The 14-day isolation period for the Winston-Salem attendees ends March 26.

In self-isolation are council members D.D. Adams, Dan Besse, Robert Clark, John Larson, Jeff MacIntosh and Annette Scippio. Evan Raleigh, an assistant city manager, and Meridith Martin, assistant to the city manager, were the other two attending the conference from Winston-Salem city government.

The two council members who didn’t go to the conference are Vivian Burke and James Taylor. Mayor Allen Joines also did not attend the event.

The conference, which brought together thousands of city officials to Washington from all over the country, took place March 8-11.

Adams said she got back to Winston-Salem on the 12th, and has felt fine since the conference ended.

“I have lupus, so I have a pre-existing condition, plus I’m 65,” Adams said. “When they tell me to sit down, I sit down.”

Clark noted that under Swift’s guidelines, the affected city officials can go out and buy groceries or take care of other essentials as long as they don’t have symptoms and maintain social distancing.

“It is a huge inconvenience, but that is all it is,” Clark said. “I feel fine. It has been almost a week. It is important that city leaders lead, so I will self-quarantine.”

Self-quarantine was the wording that the city initially used to describe what was going on with the affected council members and staffers. Late Tuesday, City Manager Lee Garrity clarified that the correct expression was self-isolation, since those affected can still go out in a limited way.

Clark, a business owner, said he can go into work after hours to check on anything he needs to or sign checks.

MacIntosh acknowledged the self-isolation will be hard.

“I’m a pretty sociable guy, so it is going to be tough,” he said. On the other hand, he said, he was well-stocked with the basics.

Besse said that even during the conference, advice and guidance on the coronavirus was quickly evolving. He said he was already limiting his contact because of his trip to Washington.

“I have literally not touched a human being except for my wife since I got back to Winston-Salem,” he said.

Larson said he’s counting down the days already.

“My first thought was that this is annoying,” Larson said. “But you have to do what has to be done.”

Garrity said the two city staffers who are in self-isolation are working from home.

Ironically, one of the major topics at the conference was how to deal with the coronavirus.

“By the time we got up there, we knew more than when we left Winston-Salem,” MacIntosh said. “Once we were there, there were classes on this and we thought we better stay here and see what we can learn.”

Some of the sessions as the conference were large gatherings, and others were smaller groups meeting on particular topics. City attendees don’t know whether they were ever even near the two people who later tested positive.

The National League of Cities did not release the names of the people who tested positive, citing privacy laws.

Some Forsyth County commissioners were in attendance at a Washington meeting of the National Association of Counties two weeks ago. Forsyth County Manager Dudley Watts said the organization has not passed on any concern about attendees to the county.

Novant, Wake Forest Baptist plan to halt non-essential surgeries Wednesday

Non-essential surgeries, procedures and ambulatory appointments will be postponed, effective Wednesday, at Novant Health and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center hospitals.

The systems, as well as Atrium Health, said the decision adheres to coronavirus-related recommendations made last week by several health-care advocacy groups and officials, most notably the U.S. Surgeon General.

The systems included as non-essential appointments services such as physical and well-checkups, as well as mammograms.

“As we navigate this situation together, we are all focusing resources to ensure that acute patients have the care and support they need when they need it,” Novant chief executive Carl Armato, Wake Forest Baptist chief executive Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag and Atrium chief executive Eugene Woods said in a joint statement.

On Wednesday, Cone Health, Duke Health, UNC Health and WakeMed announced their plans to immediately halt non-essential procedures. That includes UNC Rockingham in Eden.

“These uncertain times call for us to be judicious with our resources,” says Ed Gerhardt, MD, chief of surgery, Cone Health. “We are curtailing elective and non-urgent procedures to support medical distancing as a way to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”

Cone said it will "rely on the clinical judgment of each patient’s medical team to decide which patients should remained scheduled."

Novant said its postponing of non-essential surgeries will last through April 30.

The health care advocacy groups urged hospitals to limit, if not, halt, elective surgeries for now to free up beds for a potential surge in coronavirus patients. 

Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted Friday “Hospital & healthcare systems, PLEASE CONSIDER STOPPING ELECTIVE PROCEDURES until we can #FlattenTheCurve!”

Flatten the curve refers to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strategy of limiting gatherings of more than 10 individuals in hopes of keeping the spike in local and national coronavirus cases as low as possible.

“Rescheduling these appointments will minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 among patients, visitors and health care providers,” the three systems said. “It also allows each health care system to conserve critical resources and focus care on those that need it most.”

The systems said affected patients “will receive communication from their health care provider with further instructions.”

Novant provided additional details Wednesday, saying that "patients do not need to call the helpline or the clinic to change their appointment at this time. Anyone needing clarification should visit NovantHealth.org/coronavirus."

Decision has steep cost

Following the elective surgeries recommendation comes at a steep cost, both in delayed care for patients, and financially for health care systems that have grown increasingly dependent on outpatient procedures as a primary revenue stream.

There are 40 presumed or confirmed coronavirus cases in North Carolina, including four in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina, state health officials said Tuesday. The vast majority of those infected are in self-quarantine and not receiving hospital care.

Cone said Tuesday it is continuing with elective surgeries for now, but the recommendations “are in discussion now.”

The Triad systems have been asked if they have changed staffing policies related to medical personnel age 60 and above since they are in the high-risk category for exposure to coronavirus.

Cone said that “nothing has changed regarding clinical staff (ages) 60 and over.”

Wake Forest Baptist advises employees that “those who are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 should use caution and consider limiting exposure, especially during higher-risk procedures if feasible based on staffing.”

Novant said in a statement that “we understand the unique position that healthcare workers are in during a potential outbreak. They’re serving on the frontlines.”

“As such, we are currently evaluating our attendance-related policy. Our policies must meet the need a potential surge of patients seeking care would generate, while also prioritizing the safety and health of our team members.”

Schedules reviewed

American College of Surgeons said in a statement Friday that “each hospital, health system and surgeon should thoughtfully review all scheduled elective procedures with a plan to minimize, postpone or cancel electively scheduled operations, endoscopies or other invasive procedures.”

The recommendation would remain “until we have passed the predicted inflection point in the exposure graph and can be confident that our health care infrastructure can support a potentially rapid and overwhelming uptick in critical patient care needs,” said Dr. David Hoyt, the group’s executive director.

The surgeons’ group recommends “immediately minimizing use of essential items needed to care for patients, including but not limited to: ICU beds, personal protective equipment, terminal cleaning supplies and ventilators.”

“There are many asymptomatic patients who are, nevertheless, shedding virus and are unwittingly exposing other inpatients, outpatients and health care providers to the risk of contracting COVID-19.”

Other recommendations include: shifting elective urgent inpatient diagnostic and surgical procedures to outpatient settings, when feasible; using alternate and separate spaces in the emergency department, ICUs and other patient care areas to manage known or suspected COVID-19 patients; and identifying dedicated staff to care for COVID-19 patients.

The N.C. Hospital Association said Monday it has a physician advisory committee “that is gathering input from a range of healthcare organizations to look at that, from rural hospitals to large health systems.”

“Our members are taking measures to make sure that capacity is available in the event of a surge, and that patients who need critical procedures that might be considered elective continue to receive care.”

The NCHA said it has not been asked by member systems and hospitals for recommendations on 60 and older medical staff continuing to work during the pandemic.

The N.C. Medical Board said Monday that making recommendations on elective surgeries and active staffing of medical personnel ages 60 and older “is simply outside of the scope of what the board does.”

“As for retired medical professionals deciding whether to volunteer or otherwise participate in medical relief efforts, that is a personal decision,” the board said.

Some more elective

Dr. Charles Dinerstein, medical director for the conservative-leaning American Council on Science and Health, said Monday that “some surgeries are less elective than others, and the judgment of the surgeon, along with shared decision-making with patients, is the best approach.”

“Any surgery can result in complications, and to increase the demand on hospital resources secondary to such complications is, to my mind, inappropriate at this time.”

Dinerstein said in terms of using medical staff ages 60 and older, “the role of medical staff, all of whom are at risk, is a decision best left to the community that is the hospital’s medical and nursing staff.

“Still, we need also to consider ancillary workers, including physical and occupational therapists, transporters, dietary staff and administrators. Those decisions can vary greatly.”

“I suspect that if we err, it will be to expose ourselves to greater risk while serving the greater good,” Dinerstein said. “That is what we signed up for when we went to medical and nursing school.”