News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. to ease unemployment-benefit requirements, close dine-in restaurants and bars

Council of State didn't approve EO, Forest says; unclear how new UI rules will work

Gov. Roy Cooper announced an end to sit-down dining at restaurants and private clubs in a March 17, 2020 news conference. (Screenshot from UNC-TV)
Gov. Roy Cooper announced an end to sit-down dining at restaurants and private clubs in a March 17, 2020 news conference. (Screenshot from UNC-TV)

The state is taking stronger — some say controversial — action to slow the spread of COVID-19 as the number of cases climbs to 40 and beyond.

Requirements for unemployment benefits will be relaxed and all private clubs and restaurants will be closed except to provide takeout or delivery, Gov. Roy Cooper said during a Tuesday, March 17 news conference.

California, Illinois, Washington, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have all restricted restaurants and private clubs in some form to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The goal is to slow the spread of the virus, said Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, so fewer people are sick at the same time.

All of North Carolina’s confirmed cases of coronavirus come from people who have traveled out-of-state or were exposed to someone with the virus. State officials suspect community spread in North Carolina. So far, the state lab has collected 1,100 tests, but Cohen said that’s only part of the picture. Private labs and health care facilities are testing, too, and the state is working on collecting that information.

To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, all private clubs and restaurants were restricted to takeout or deliveries starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Grocery stores and pharmacies will stay open, but Cooper urged against stockpiling and hoarding. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican nominee for governor, threw a curveball after Cooper’s announcement when he called into question the legality of the executive order. The Council of State voted against the measure to ban in-person dining at private clubs and restaurants before the afternoon news conference, Forest said in a news release.

“His mandate will devastate our economy, shutter many small businesses, and leave many people unemployed, especially in the rural areas of our state where food supply is already critical,” Forest said.

The vote appears to have fallen along party lines. Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein, and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall all voted to support the move, but the state superintendent, secretary of agriculture, labor commissioner, state treasurer, and the insurance commissioner voted against it, CJ has learned. How Democratic State Auditor Beth Wood voted is unclear.

Cooper doesn’t have the authority to enact the restaurant ban without approval from other state leaders, Forest said. 

On Twitter, Brent Woodcox, a Republican legislative special counsel, questioned Forest’s decision to challenge Cooper. While Forest may be legally correct, it is a risky political move in the midst of a crisis, Woodcox tweeted.

Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for Cooper, chastised Forest for creating chaos in a crisis situation.

“The Governor is taking action to protect the health and safety of North Carolinians and does not need concurrence,” Weiner said in a news release. “The Governor and the Secretary of DHHS have the authority to do this under state public health and emergency powers law.”

“We are in unprecedented times,” Cooper said. “We did not come to these decisions easily.”

Businesses both small and large are facing a new reality, the governor said. To help employers and employees affected by the pandemic, the state will relax requirements governing unemployment benefits.

The one-week waiting period to apply for unemployment benefits will be lifted, Cooper said. No longer will people have to search for work to get unemployment benefits, and applicants can apply remotely to receive help.

Employers won’t be penalized for laying off workers because of the coronavirus.

“Some things are just going to have to change for a while,” Cooper said. “Even as some things change, who we are will not. We will learn from this and we will be better than we were before.”

The N.C. Unemployment Trust Fund has a $3.9-billion balance ready to handle the emergency, Speaker of the House Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said in a news release.

“North Carolina is exceptionally well-prepared to support working people who are losing income due to this emergency, with the highest unemployment reserve ratio in the Southeast,” Moore said.

North Carolina also has a $1.1-billion savings reserve, a $74-million Disaster Relief Fund, and $186 million in Medicaid contingency reserves, the news release says.

Had Cooper gotten his way with his spending priorities, the state would have been less prepared to deal with the current emergency, said Joe Coletti, senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation.

“The large fund balance, which would have been smaller with his budget proposal, makes it possible to relax unemployment requirements without tagging employers for their cost,” Coletti said. “Cooper’s budget called the amount in reserves too high and sought to divert money from the trust fund.”

Coletti also said he wasn’t sure how Cooper’s order to give immediate relief to hourly employees would work.

“The waiting time and work search waivers [for laid-off workers] are easy to understand. The reduced hours is tricky — how many weeks’ worth of pay stubs would you have to produce to demonstrate how many hours were typical before COVID? I would guess that anyone who works in the food industry would be eligible, but I don’t know about other industries. Verification will be trickier because employers’ won’t be charged for their unemployment experience, which means greater potential for fraud,” Coletti said.

CJ reached out to the state Department of Commerce, which operates the Division of Employment Security, with questions about implementing these rules. At press time, the department hadn’t responded.

The General Assembly made changes to state law in 2017 to ensure unemployed people wouldn’t have to wait a week or search for a new job if they lost their job because of a federally declared disaster.

“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. But we have a multibillion surplus for times like this,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a separate release.