Proposed bill would give $1,500 return-to-work bonus to those receiving unemployment benefits

A bill backed by Republican lawmakers that would introduce a $1,500 return-to-work bonus is making its way through the North Carolina General Assembly. It will require Governor Roy Cooper’s signature before becoming law.

The bill makes progress as multiple sectors, particularly the restaurant and hospitality industry, are reporting widespread labor shortages.

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The bill passed in the Senate Tuesday down party lines. It passed in the House in March, picking up eight votes from Democrats. Because the Senate altered the bill this week, it must re-pass in the House before heading to Governor Cooper.

As drafted, the bill would provide a one-time $1,500 payment to those accepting reemployment who are currently accepting unemployment benefits within 30 days of becoming law.

Between 30 and 60 days of the bill’s passage, an $800 bonus would be available, with no funds offered after Sept. 6.

The payouts are dependent upon a federal funding source and approval, so even if it passes, the source of money would have to be dispersed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

Republican state leadership opposes the continuation of $300 weekly federal unemployment benefits –– offered in addition to the $300 in state benefits –– which President Joe Biden extended in March through early September.

In a joint press release last week, U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis blamed the state’s employment shortage on exorbitant federal unemployment benefits and called on Governor Cooper to stop accepting them. “Dismissing these concerns by telling employers to ‘pay more’ demonstrates an ignorance of the math at play,” the senators wrote. “Even if a small business could afford to pay the progressives’ ideal of $15 per hour – and most can’t – it still wouldn’t be enough.”

A person making $15 an hour in a typical 40-hour workweek would earn $600 before taxes; federal unemployment benefits are $650 for a zero-hour workweek — “it’s no wonder so many have delayed returning to work as long as possible,” the senators wrote.

Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, said she voted against the bill because it would instate more burdensome work-search requirements and doesn’t appropriate funds needed to add more staff to an “already strained” N.C. Department of Commerce.

On May 21, Cooper signed an executive order reinstating work-search requirements for those accepting unemployment benefits for the first time since the pandemic began. The requirements to complete three work contacts to continue receiving benefits kick in June 6.

Through a spokesperson, Cooper indicated a willingness to support the signing bonus plan but appeared opposed to the proposal to end federal benefits, according to The News & Observer.

House Bill 128 would tighten work requirements by removing the option for individuals to forgo one of their work contacts by attending an employment activity offered by a career center. It would also introduce new rules for interview requests, requiring individuals to respond within 48 hours of a request and attend an interview within seven days or after, if agreed to by both parties for employers offering suitable work. If an individual fails to meet any of the new interview requirements three or more times during a benefit year, they would be disqualified from receiving benefits.

The bill also introduces a requirement to audit 25% of all weekly certifications, conduced by a third-party firm.

Update: This article has been corrected to reflect the bill is not yet headed to Governor Cooper. It will require another vote in the House before reaching the governor’s desk.


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