Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Cooper needs to own N.C.’s entire employment situation

Gov. Roy Cooper, at an April 23, 2020, COVID-19 news conference. (Pool photo)
Gov. Roy Cooper, at an April 23, 2020, COVID-19 news conference. (Pool photo)

On Monday, May 18, the opinion team for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer called for Gov. Roy Cooper to take responsibility for North Carolina’s disastrous unemployment insurance system. “NC unemployment delays have been a disaster. Own it, Gov. Cooper,” read the headline for the editorial appearing in both papers.

I agree with the editorial, but believe Cooper also needs to take responsibility for the overall employment situation in North Carolina, not just the delivery of benefits through the Division of Employment Security. He needs to own the North Carolina job losses as measured by the N.C. Department of Commerce and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Cooper is the one who ordered restaurants and bars to cease normal operations starting March 17. He is the one who ordered gyms, health clubs, movie theaters, barber shops, hair salons, and other select businesses to close March 25. He is the one who ordered citizens to stay home and nonessential businesses to cease operations March 30.

Cooper announced Wednesday that restaurants and some other businesses could reopen at 5 p.m. Friday, subject to restrictions. He also ordered that some business remain closed until June 26. Those businesses include gyms, movie theaters, museums, amusement parks, bars, and night clubs.

Cooper’s orders are responsible for the loss of jobs. The total loss to date is unclear, but the claims data from DES give us some insight into how bad the situation is. According to DES, from March 15 through May 20, 1,252,834 initial claims have been filed, 922,821 individuals have filed claims, and 565,970 claimants were paid. DES hasn’t released any estimates of people who have tried to file a claim but couldn’t get through to the call center or navigate the online process.

The best way to take the strain off the unemployment insurance system is to let people go back to work.

The perfect time for Cooper to own the North Carolina employment situation is Friday morning. At 10 a.m., his Department of Commerce will release the state employment numbers for the month of April. The state numbers are essentially North Carolina’s share of the national numbers for April which were released May 8. These numbers are separate from the claims data.

The employment numbers come from two monthly surveys conducted under the direction of BLS. The establishment survey measures nonfarm employment by industry sector. The household survey measures the labor force status of individuals, including employment and unemployment by demographic characteristics.

In April, total U.S. nonfarm payroll employment fell by 20.5 million, including 6.4 million jobs in the restaurant and bar category and 2 million in retail trade. The unemployment rate rose from 4.4% to 14.7%. But according to BLS, the April unemployment rate should have been higher.

The agency explained that due to the unique nature of the coronavirus on the employment status of some individuals, “the overall unemployment rate would have been almost 5 percentage points higher than reported on a not seasonally adjusted basis.” The not seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for April is 14.4%, so adding “almost 5%” brings the national unemployment rate to 19%.

North Carolina’s employment situation for the month of April should be similar to the nation’s. There should be considerable jobs losses in the restaurant and bar category and also in retail trade. The unemployment rate will likely be close to the national rate, but it too will be understated by almost 5 percentage points.

Cooper should acknowledge that his policies, however well intentioned, are responsible for these jaw-dropping numbers.

The job losses and rising unemployment rate are a result of Cooper’s executive orders. He needs to take responsibility for the entire employment situation.

Don Carrington is an investigative reporter for Carolina Journal, a publication of the John Locke Foundation. Before joining JLF 25 years ago, he worked for more than eight years with the Employment Security Commission, with the last five as deputy director of the Labor Market Information Division.