Gov. Roy Cooper says the state Division of Employment Security is buried under a “mountain of claims,” receiving more than 20,000 requests for Unemployment Insurance benefits Sunday, March 29. By contrast, the agency dealt with about 25,000 claims a month during the Great Recession and is set up to handle about 3,000 claims weekly.

But during a Tuesday news conference, Cooper couldn’t say how many of the more than 300,000 claims filed since March 16 have been processed — or how soon the checks will go out. It’s also unclear how quickly DES will be able to deal with the added $600 weekly benefit that’s part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act President Trump signed into law last week. North Carolina’s benefits are capped at $350 a week.

The number of North Carolinians getting checks eventually will become public. DES makes two weekly reports to the U.S. Department of Labor: weekly initial claims and “continued claims,” which counts the people receiving benefits.

Those reports are published on the federal department’s website, after what appears to be a three-week lag. For example, the most current federal report reflects activity from the week ending March 7. From North Carolina, 3,533 initial claims were filed and 19,683 continued claims reported. The state’s UI system had 4,381,417 covered workers.

State policymakers have to get ready for another group of workers who qualify for UI benefits under the CARES Act, but aren’t covered by the unemployment system: self-employed workers and independent contractors.

State Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, said she’s not sure how they’ll handle benefits to people who aren’t in the UI system. Howard co-chairs the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance. She agreed with Cooper, telling Carolina Journal that DES is overwhelmed and trying to get payments out.

State Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, another member of the UI committee, told CJ he was concerned with maximizing the federal benefits. He also wants to make sure people can file online — another concern Cooper shared at Tuesday’s news conference. Nickel said more data would be helpful but it wasn’t the highest priority.

How soon will the agency share information about claims in the works and checks issued?

“We are reviewing multiple requests for data and will update you when we are prepared to release additional information. Our primary focus is improving our operations to assist claimants and employers, while preparing to implement the new federal programs,” DES spokeswoman Kerry McComber told CJ.

Reporting by Don Carrington and Rick Henderson