Independent contractors, self-employed North Carolinians, might access unemployment benefits in two weeks

The N.C. Division of Employment Security wants unemployment benefits for independent contractors and self-employed people up and running by April 25. 

At least, that’s the deadline officials “anticipate.” 

North Carolina ranks last in the nation at getting timely payments to its applicants, Carolina Journal reported April 8, around the time DES updated its website with answers to questions about federal aid for North Carolinians laid-off because of COVID-19. On April 9, Gov. Roy Cooper signed another executive order, a part of which makes it easier for employers to file batch claims on behalf of workers. These “attached claims,” are faster for DES to process, Cooper said. 

DES is overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of claims — and implementing federal unemployment assistance under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act is another heavy lift, Lockhart Taylor said in an April 7 House committee hearing. Taylor is assistant secretary for employment security at the N.C. Department of Commerce, which oversees DES.  

The federal CARES Act, signed March 27 by President Trump, includes three plans to help Americans left jobless in the pandemic. The first is the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which doles out an extra $600 per week to people laid-off because of COVID-19. North Carolina aims to make the first payments of that program April 17, the DES website says. 

The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program adds 13 weeks of payments for people who’ve already exhausted their state benefits. DES is unsure what the timeline for that program’s rollout will look like. 

As for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — a plan allowing independent contractors and self-employed people to apply for unemployment benefits — DES plans to accept those claims by April 25. 

CJ emailed Taylor on April 8 asking when updates to the crashing DES website would be finished, along with several other questions about the DES system and process. Taylor immediately responded that he would answer the questions by noon Thursday, but CJ received no other information from Taylor by press time. Updates to the DES website answered some, but not all, of our questions. 

The division is swamped with emails and phone calls, Taylor said Tuesday during the House committee. 

Even so, state lawmakers such as Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, are calling on DES to find solutions as thousands of applicants face dropped phone calls, pending applications, and a crashing website. 

“The lack of clarity from the N.C. Division of Employment Security on the application process for the federal unemployment program it has been tasked to administer leaves thousands of North Carolinians in the dark,” Perry said in an emailed statement Thursday. 

“Instead of coming up with concrete timelines and solutions, unemployed North Carolinians are being left hanging for weeks. Now they have to worry about whether they’ll be able to pay their bills.”

DES has provided little guidance about federal benefits, said Perry, pointing to CJ’s article. 

 “These people applied for benefits weeks ago after spending hours working around a crashed website and clogged phone lines,” Perry said. “Now, we’re told it could take another couple of weeks for them to apply for a second time after being initially denied. This is a textbook case of government inefficiency. These citizens don’t have time to wait for benefits, they need them now.”

Cooper should move state employees from other departments to handle the high volume of claims at DES, Perry says. He suggested DES contract an outside firm to work on website issues around the clock and operate call centers “16 hours a day, seven days a week until the backlog in applications has been resolved.” 

DES received 497,000 claims since March 16, Cooper’s office reported Thursday. North Carolina paid $40.3 million in benefits. More is going out every day, Cooper said.