Ashley Arthur, a Raleigh resident and former software company employee, was laid off in January — before the coronavirus pandemic buried the N.C. Division of Employment Security in new claims from laid-off workers. 

Charlotte residents Tim and Dee Worley, both former professional athletes who now work in nonprofits and as independent contractors, were hit by the economic effects of COVID-19 in April — after hundreds of thousands of unemployed North Carolinians swarmed DES and crashed its website.

They are just a sample of the applicants who are waiting. On pending applications. On payments.

On answers. 

Those answers could be a long-time coming, show unemployment insurance data from an interactive website at the U.S. Department of Labor. 

North Carolina’s unemployment division is the worst in the nation at getting timely payments to its applicants, and has been for several years, data from USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration show. For the first quarter of 2020, North Carolina paid 67.2% of first payments in a timely manner. The national average for the same period was 86.5%.

DES was struggling long before the coronavirus drove its system to the brink. Under pre-pandemic state unemployment rules, people were required to wait one week after losing their job before applying for benefits. States with a one-week waiting period must process unemployment claims and distribute payments within 14 days, ETA policy says. States with no such waiting period must pay an applicant within 21 days.

Gov. Roy Cooper, in one of the many executive orders issued over the past several weeks, waived North Carolina’s waiting period to provide swifter assistance to residents suffering the economic ravages of COVID-19.

That means Arthur’s application, which her former employer immediately verified after she filed her March 13 claim, should already be processed.

Instead, it’s been pending for more than three weeks, stuck somewhere in the DES system. The Worleys, who in the past five days fought through dozens of website crashes and dropped phone calls with DES, finally managed to complete Tim’s application April 7. 

Neither applicant wants to depend on unemployment payments. And neither one is sitting on their hands. 

“I just want to work,” Arthur told Carolina Journal. Arthur, the mother of a 5-month-old baby boy, is actively seeking a job. But people aren’t exactly hiring in the middle of a pandemic with economic fallout, she said. Her husband is still working. They are fortunate to have emergency savings. 

“It’s not like we’re starving. But our savings is quickly dwindling,” she said. 

The Worleys are stuck in a similar situation. The state’s lack of answers — and overabundance of “resources” — is maddening, Dee told CJ

Dee, a former Team USA and NCAA gymnast, is now a publicist with a knack for finding information. She’s scoured the internet for guidance. It’s everywhere, she said, but little of it is helpful. The state’s unemployment office, the governor, state lawmakers, and members of Congress all push out announcements and FAQs about what to do. It all leads to a crashing DES website, Dee said. 

Dee’s husband, Tim, was a No. 1 draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1989. Tim Worley, a running back who played for the Steelers and Chicago Bears until 1994, now works at Power Cross Ministries, a religious nonprofit offering athletic and tutoring services in Statesville and Salisbury. His work hours were scaled back in late March. He was officially benched April 6, when the organization shut down all operations until at least the end of April. 

He’s phoned DES multiple times a day. Like many people, he’s getting dropped calls. No help. No direction. Just disconnections.  

“If we could even get put “on hold” five hours, that would be a win,” Dee told CJ

Arthur, who has called DES about 10 times everyday for the past three weeks, finally was put “on hold” April 6. She waited six hours and 45 minutes to talk with a DES representative. He was very nice, she told CJ, but couldn’t solve her problem over the phone. Arthur’s pending application was kicked to a different department. 

Check back in a few days, DES told Arthur. Your claim should be approved soon. 

“But I can’t even access the website to see my status,” she told CJ, voice riddled with frustration. “It keeps crashing.” 

While Arthur and the Worleys wait, DES says it’s working hard to update the system. The division was bombarded with 474,466 claims between March 16 and April 7. On April 7 alone, DES took in 29,370 applications. 

The N.C. Department of Commerce, which manages DES, is still trying to verify the numbers CJ gleaned from the federal government, Assistant Secretary Lockhart Taylor told CJ. He pointed out the federal government didn’t have complete first quarter information for most states, including North Carolina. Instead, the federal labor department made an estimate. It added this footnote to the report: “State did not submit all reports for the period and performance has been estimated based on the partial data submitted.”

Before the last quarter report, Taylor said, DES was improving, making more timely payments. CJ confirmed that claim. But DES still ranked last for the calendar year 2019 with a score of 58.1%, significantly under the national average of 85.5%.

Was Cooper aware of North Carolina’s poor ranking? CJ asked Taylor.

“The governor’s office is aware of our concerted effort on addressing timeliness and quality issues because I have shared our work and what we were doing to address them,” he said.

DES knows it must work on timeliness, Taylor said, pointing to a report he gave Jan. 28 to the Joint Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance. Taylor said he discussed the issue directly with the committee’s chair, Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie.

On-time unemployment payments were a problem for DES before the Cooper administration.

Under former Gov. Pat McCrory, North Carolina doled out 67.5% of first unemployment payments in a timely manner. The national average during those years was 81.9%. The numbers were better under former Gov. Beverly Perdue. The state sent out 83.5% of first payments on time, beating the national average of 82.5%.

DES should be judged on quality, not just timeliness, Taylor told CJ. “There was always the belief that if you had good quality scores, your timeliness would go down. And timeliness would make quality scores go down. We did not accept that philosophy.” The division made strides in meeting quality standards during the last three quarters of 2019, he said.

As for DES and its handling of an onslaught of claims under the pandemic, the department is doing the best it can, Taylor told a House committee April 7.

“In 2009 we took 158,000 claims in the month of February,” Taylor said. “And to think that in three weeks we’ve taken 450,000 claims is really an accomplishment in so many ways.”

DES is publicly releasing daily counts of initial claims for unemployment benefits. CJ also asked Taylor when DES would share payment data that it is already reporting to ETA.  “Did not have the opportunity to research this. Don’t know why we couldn’t start providing this but want to check with others about this.”

The unemployment office wants to help people who are frustrated, Taylor said. 

Last week alone, DES took in about 122,000 claims, Taylor told committee members. This week, the department sent out 110,000 payments equal to $28.6 million.

DES is adding staff to its new call center, Taylor said. Originally, it was manned by 50 staffers. But 50 people was “a grain of sand in the Sahara,” he said. For example, the division took 270,000 calls March 30 alone. DES will add 250 new people to its call center by the end of the week. 

DES also has its work cut out implementing federal unemployment assistance provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Taylor said. Signed into law by President Trump on March 27, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act includes three provisions to boost unemployment for Americans left jobless in the pandemic. North Carolina only just received official guidance on how to launch the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — a policy change allowing independent contractors and self-employed people to apply for unemployment benefits during COVID-19, Taylor said. 

Tim Worley, who is paid as an independent contractor by Power Cross Ministries, already filed for unemployment. He’s still confused about how or when he’ll receive benefits. 

So, it seems, is the state. Federal guidance is tough to decipher and implement, Taylor said.

Independent contractors like the Worleys will have to file a separate application, Taylor told the committee Tuesday. DES is still uncertain what that application will look like, how it will be programmed, or when it will be available, he added. 

The office will have more updates later in the week, he said. 

The Worleys, and others like them, will just have to wait.

“The flaws in the online system, and the 1956-level phone bot, could mean financial ruin for a lot of people. It won’t mean that for us, but it could for a lot of people,” Dee said. “It’s unconscionable how ill-prepared the state of North Carolina is in response to this crisis.

“I expect more from a state that includes a city loaded with banks as its industry and a professional football team. North Carolina is functioning as if ‘Mayberry’ is the state capital.” 

As for Arthur — whose unemployment has nothing to do with COVID-19 — well, she’s feeling a little forgotten about.

“Don’t we matter?” Arthur said, speaking to DES, the governor, and the General Assembly. “You keep telling us all these things. But when? Where? When is help on the way?”

DES knows lawmakers are getting bombarded with phone calls and emails from exasperated constituents, Taylor said. He, too, is getting between 300 and 400 emails a day, the official told lawmakers.

Technical fixes to the DES website are under way. It’s taken down every night between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. for system changes, upgrades, and improvements. That’s for “the foreseeable future,” a notice on the website reads when the website is accessed overnight. CJ is still working to get answers about when those fixes will be complete, when the website will be updated with new information for independent contractors and self-employed people, and how DES is prioritizing application approvals.

“If we could flip a switch tomorrow and make it go, I promise you we would do it, because it would save us a lot of effort, as well. But that’s just not realistic right now,” Taylor said to the House committee.

But why didn’t the state make these fixes before? Arthur and the Worleys asked. Isn’t that what emergency preparation is for?

The state can scramble to fix an already broken system, but the damage to public trust may be irreparable as those affected seek simple answers to questions that seem to get more complicated daily.

If Arthur and others like her can’t get those answers from current state leaders, they may turn to the voting booth.

“I just don’t want to be patronized. This isn’t the time to blow smoke,” she concluded. “The cracks in government are showing. People are going to see where they are.”

Don Carrington provided reporting and research for this article.