Legislation introduced by Republican lawmakers would mandate recipients of unemployment benefits actively search for work, a requirement that hasn’t been in place since the pandemic began in March.

Traditionally, unemployment benefits have been linked to a job-search requirement. But in a March 10 executive order, Gov. Roy Cooper waived that requirement due to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Now that the economy is improving and rates of infection, hospitalization, and death in North Carolina are steadily declining, lawmakers believe it’s time for the job-search requirement to make a comeback.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate peaked at 12.9% in April before declining to 6.2% by December, the most recent month for which data are available. Due to the state’s improving employment situation, North Carolina no longer meets the federal government’s threshold for paying extended unemployment benefits up to 24 weeks after traditional unemployment benefits run out. Those extended benefits ended Feb. 20.

The bills introduced in the state House and Senate would only apply the work-search requirement to those who lost unemployment for non-COVID-related reasons.

The N.C. Division of Employment Security has the option of waiving the requirements, even without legislative authorization. At a legislative meeting Feb. 17, DES assistant secretary Pryor Gibson signaled to lawmakers that his office would reintroduce the work requirement “within days, certainly within weeks.” That directive would apply to all recipients of unemployment benefits, not just those who lost work due for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.

“It makes sense for DES and legislators to reinstate job-search requirements for people who are unemployed for reasons unrelated to COVID-19,” said Joseph Coletti, senior fellow for fiscal studies with the John Locke Foundation. “Even people who lost their job because of the pandemic have found new jobs.

“As parts of the economy strengthen, businesses need to fill those roles. Since the governor waived the job-search requirement nearly a year ago, workers and businesses have learned how to take precautions to limit risk. This is a reasonable step in the process of restarting.”

All told, North Carolina has paid more than $10 billion in unemployment claims since the pandemic began in March.

David Bass is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.