Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Public records will shine light on Cooper’s response to employment security’s problems 

Assistant Employment Security Secretary Lockhart Taylor addresses a COVID-19 briefing Thursday, April 2. (Screenshot from UNC-TV)
Assistant Employment Security Secretary Lockhart Taylor addresses a COVID-19 briefing Thursday, April 2. (Screenshot from UNC-TV)

After Gov. Roy Cooper ordered restaurants and bars closed starting March 16 due to the coronavirus, unemployment benefit claims in North Carolina skyrocketed.

More than 1 million North Carolina workers have filed claims for unemployment insurance as of May 3, the Division of Employment Security reports. The state’s civilian labor force is roughly 5 million. DES reports about 450,000 people are receiving benefits. The agency 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.

On March 29, Cooper acknowledged that DES was struggling with the workload. “Thousands of workers have lost jobs, but their bills don’t stop. My administration is working overtime to get unemployment checks out now. We’ll keep pushing every day for more state and federal help to save our workers and their families,” he said.

A month later, DES is still struggling.

During his April 30 coronavirus news briefing, Cooper was asked what he would say to workers who have been unable to file claims through DES. “It is unacceptable for a person who is unemployed to not be able to get through, and I have ordered the Employment Security Division to increase the number of people who are handling telephone calls and increase the capability online to take claims,” Cooper said. He said delays in claim processing is a nationwide problem.

DES leader Adam Lockhart Taylor has shared his agency’s struggles in public briefings at the state’s Emergency Operations Center, before House committees dealing with the coronavirus, and at private briefings with the governor and the governor’s senior staff.

The essence of the non-public briefings and the governor’s non-public response can best be evaluated by examining public records in Taylor’s possession. I have asked for those records. Taylor should provide them immediately to me and other reporters who want to look at the Cooper administration’s efforts to deliver benefit payments.

Cooper, a Democrat, is running for a second term as governor this year. His main opponent is Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican. Everything either man does from now through the November election may have political consequences.

Taylor comes from a Democratic political family. He is the son of Hoyt Patrick “Pat” Taylor, a Wadesboro attorney, former speaker of the N. C. House of Representatives, and the state’s lieutenant governor from 1969-73. Pat Taylor ran for governor in 1972, but lost to Skipper Bowles in the Democratic primary. He died in 2018.

In 2017, Lockhart Taylor became assistant secretary for employment security in the N. C. Department of Commerce. A public database lists his original hiring date as April 1, 1993. But he actually started with the agency in 1991 in a temporary position as a labor market analyst in the Labor Market Information Division of what then was the Employment Security Commission.

I know this because I hired him.

In 2011, the General Assembly dissolved the Employment Security Commission and created DES to align the employment security functions of state government under the secretary of commerce. The Labor Market Information Division, where Taylor started, was rolled into the Labor and Economic Analysis Division within the Commerce Department.

On Friday, May 1, I asked Taylor to produce public records. For the time period March 1, 2020. through May 1, 2020, I asked him to provide all emails, correspondence, and text messages that he has sent or received in his official capacity as an employee of the state of North Carolina. This two-month period for one person’s records should be easy to produce.

Is Taylor competent? Everyone I have talked to said yes. Has Cooper responded well to Taylor’s cries for help? I do not know. Public records will help us explore for answers.

Here are some upcoming employment data releases to look for:

  • On May 7 and every Thursday in the future, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration will release an Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims report. These reports contain data for the U. S. and the individual states.
  • On May 8, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics will release the national Employment Situation report for the month of April. This report will contain estimates for persons employed, unemployed and the unemployment rate derived from the household survey. It will also contain non-farm employment, hours, and earnings by industry derived from the establishment survey.
  • On May 22, BLS and the N.C. Department of Commerce will release April employment data for the North Carolina.
  • On June 3, the N. C. Department of Commerce will release April employment data for individual North Carolina counties.

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.