North Carolina’s war on the unemployed continues

North Carolina’s war on the unemployed continues


Even while North Carolina was still in the grips of the Great Recession, with thousands of residents suffering the slings and arrows of joblessness because they were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Republican legislators moved to make it harder to receive unemployment benefits.

The train of thought seemed to be: Unemployment rates are up. Thus, people must have become lazier. Thus, we should make it harder for them to subsist. Thus, they’ll be more strongly motivated to look for work.

It brings to mind the old admonition, which must be popular among those who see joblessness as mainly a consequence of lack of effort: “Root, hog, or die!”

Of course, someone’s inability to find a decent job – and “decent” should be part of the equation – is seldom so simple to explain.

Innumerable workers have been displaced by seismic shifts in the economy: the decline of North Carolina’s traditional Big Three of textiles, tobacco and furniture; the technology-spurred rise in productivity that has meant fewer workers are needed to achieve the same output; the reluctance of Recession-burned businesses to take on the risks of workforce expansion.

Job-seekers up against those kinds of obstacles – especially if their skills are seen as substandard or outmoded – can run themselves ragged trying to overcome the odds. But in far too many cases, no amount of effort will suffice. They’re simply frozen out of a job market that may have room for some lucky folks, but not for them.

Counting ‘contacts’

The General Assembly’s first crackdown on the unemployed came when it shrank unemployment benefits and shortened the period during which benefits will be paid. Some legislators went so far as to say, if not in quite so many words, “That’ll get ’em off their sorry rear ends!” This callousness was high on the list of grievances cited by the Moral Monday social justice protesters who rocked the state government scene in 2013 and 2014.

Now comes an insult that compounds the indignity – the handiwork of legislators out of touch with the nitty-gritty of job-hunting amidst a still-fragile economy.

For someone to receive unemployment benefits, he or she must be registered with the Division of Employment Services. Fine.

The person must be actively searching for work “that is appropriate in light of the employment available in the labor market and the individual’s skills and capabilities.” Fine.

But Senate Bill 15, which lawmakers sent to the Governor on Monday, would set an unrealistic standard for what that active search must entail.

Currently, a jobless benefits recipient must look for work on at least two days per week and must make at least two contacts with potential employers. The proposed change does away with the two-days-per-week rule. Yet it mandates that each week, someone make at least five job contacts to stay eligible for benefits.

There was a time when a person looking for work could go from store to store, factory to factory or office to office, filling out job applications and expecting to speak with someone about the hiring situation. Or a phone call might actually get through to someone who could offer guidance, encouraging or not.

Maybe that’s the way it still happens, occasionally. But job-seekers these days often are shunted into an online application process that requires computer access – something that’s by no means universal, even if people with steady incomes may take it for granted. What if there’s not even a public library nearby?

Helping, not hounding

A supporter of the five-contacts rule might say, well, of course it’s unrealistic if you mean completing five actual, legitimate job applications each and every week, but the language is looser than that. Perhaps five phone calls – to the same outfit? – and five quick “go-away-and-stop-bothering-us” replies would suffice.

If that’s what it boils down to, then the rule is a farce. The unemployed don’t need that kind of harassment. They need real help matching up with employers willing to give them a shot. The state could do much more along those lines if legislators weren’t so intent on blaming the victims of joblessness.

The rule also fails to account for the different circumstances faced by job-seekers in our urban vs. rural areas. A worker laid off from a small-town textile operation could find it very hard to make the required number of contacts, especially with employers who might pay a comparable wage. Is the person just supposed to pick up and move to the city? Many have done that, but it’s a reason why many of our small towns are hurting.

Even in an economy that has shown signs of revival, people whom employers have cast aside simply have a rough time finding meaningful work. They may bear an unwarranted stigma. They may be seen as too old or out of touch. They may not know the rights folks on the inside, or have the right names to drop. They may need to reinvent themselves with additional skills.

Surely there are vanishingly few among us of working age who actually want to be unemployed – who relish the thought of cashing modest benefit checks while they goof off. People know that’s a dead end. They also know that gainful employment is a cornerstone of a fulfilling life. Our policies should assume that people value the dignity of work, and that they’re no more anxious to keep on collecting unemployment benefits than our legislators are to offer them.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.