Tens of thousands of long-term unemployed workers will be suddenly cut off from their benefits July 1, a reality that many of the affected don’t realize.
The N.C. Division of Employment Security has just begun informing the estimated 70,000 long-term unemployed about the looming cut-off date a little more than a month away.
“We’re really desperate as to what’s going on here,” said JoAnn Loggins, of Morganton, who learned about the cut-off through a friend. “If they cut off unemployment, I’m going to be devastated; I’m going to be homeless.”
Loggins, 69, cares for her mentally disabled granddaughter and has been without a job since February when she was laid off from her position handling billing for a trucking company.
The changes are a result of a far-reaching law  passed and signed this February to repay money North Carolina borrowed during the recession and restructure the state’s unemployment system. The new law caps weekly benefits at $350, down from the current $535, and limits the length of unemployment to a sliding scale of 13 to 20 weeks of unemployment, down from six months, when the unemployment rate is above 9 percent.
It will drop to between 12 to 19 weeks of benefits when the unemployment rate is between 8.5 and 9 percent, as it is now.
The state’s seasonably adjusted unemployed rate for April was 8.9 percent , the lowest it’s been since January 2009 but still the fifth-highest in the nation, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics .
The stubbornly high unemployment rate comes as no surprise to Loggins, the unemployed worker from Morganton. With 25 years in the trucking industry, she’s sent out resumes and attended job retraining classes but hasn’t been able to find replacement work. She suspects employers overlook her because of her age.
“Why would you hire someone that should already be retired?,” she said. “But I still need to work and I can learn anything.”
Limited information about the July 1 cut-off have gone out yet to the more than 70,000 who stand to be immediately affected, with notices just appearing online for jobless workers logging in to their unemployment accounts.
Anyone who started unemployment before January will likely be affected, according to the unemployment agency.
The federal labor department estimates that 170,000 jobless North Carolinians will have forgone the federal benefits through the end of the year that otherwise would have been available, had the state legislature not insisted on a July 1 start date.
Commerce officials said they rolled out a communications plan this past week and put up a “question and answer ” article on the agency’s website informing the long-term jobless of the June 29 cut-off date. The department is referring those with the looming cut-off to the state’s workforce solutions offices, which can assist with job searches. (Click here  for more information.)
Dale Folwell, the head of the Division of Employment Security  and former state representative, said his agency hopes to be in contact soon with jobless workers like Loggins to inform them about the July 1 changes.
Folwell said he’s skeptical of the 170,000 affected people estimate provided by the federal labor department, but a spokesperson for the federal Department of Labor said the agency has no reason to believe that number is incorrect. That number refers to the total number of people that would have been able to access the federal funds, and the state legislature delayed the start date of the unemployment law to January instead of July 1.
Those on extended benefits weren’t targeted by the law passed by the legislature earlier this year, but will be affected nonetheless, he said.
“It’s our job to execute the law,” Folwell said.
The fund that pays out insurance is funded largely by employers and businesses, but the state was left without sufficient reserves to weather the recession after giving a series of tax breaks to businesses in the 1990s, when the state legislature was under Democratic control.
One of the first actions of this year’s Republican-led legislature was to hatch a plan to aggressively pay back the $2.5 billion debt by slashing benefits to individuals and including a modest tax increase to businesses.
Worker rights groups and others urged the legislature to push the start date to January, and not July 1, so that unemployed North Carolinians could access the approximately $700 million federal money earmarked to flow through to the jobless.
The extended unemployment benefits are only permitted in states that offer unemployment for six months, and North Carolina no longer qualifies for that aid under its new set of rules. The state legislature received a rare plea to delay the July 1 start date from the U.S. Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris, who called the cuts a “grievous blow” to the middle class.
Elise McGee, who also lost her job in the trucking industry last year, said she’s panicked about what will happen when she draws her last unemployment check in June. The single 59-year-old woman has been out of work since last April and hasn’t been able to find anyone to rehire her.
She credits the $260 she gets every week with allowing her to eat and stay in her apartment, while sending out resumes and applying to jobs daily. She doesn’t know where she’s find the money to pay for food after June.
“You wake up in the morning with that sick knot in your stomach,” McGee said. “They’re not out there, the jobs aren’t out there”
McGee spent the last two weeks calling state lawmakers and asking them to take action of House Bill 922 , which would have pushed the start date of the unemployment changes to January and allowed the federal funds to flow through to the unemployed workers.
The bill, introduced by Minority Leader Larry Hall and only backed by Democrats, won’t move forward after failing to get any traction before crossover last week in the Republican-controlled legislature, an arbitrary date that requires a bill pass at least one legislative house if it’s to continue on.
McGee worries about others like her who are without jobs, and don’t know that unemployed will run out in a matter of weeks.
“If it were 10,000 people, that’s bad enough,” she said. “Most of these people don’t know and that bothers me for them.”
Are you unemployed and stand to be affected by these changes? The state’s workforce solutions offices can offer help here .
Reporter Sarah Ovaska would also like to hear from you, and what your experience has been.
You can reach her at [email protected]  or (919) 861-1463.