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Jobless Workers Testify at Public Hearing on Benefits Lapse

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Two weeks later, still no action

On April 16, 2011, some 37,000 jobless North Carolinians who have been unemployed for more than 79 weeks lost their last lifeline when our state failed to make a simple change to the eligibility formula so these folks could receive an additional 20 weeks of benefits paid for by the federal government.

Read our recent blog post "Calling on Lawmakers to Extend Benefits" for more information.

State Republican lawmakers tied the tweak to an unsuccessful effort to force Governor Perdue to agree to double-digit budget cuts.  As the extended benefits program has nothing to do with our state's budget, Gov. Perdue vetoed the legislation.

Instead of taking up a clean bill to extend these benefits without including poison-pill amendments, Republican legislative leaders have chosen to extend the pain and suffering of tens of thousands of unemployed workers by doing nothing.

This week, Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis and others came face-to-face with jobless workers who spoke at a public hearing called by Sen. Martin Nesbitt to shame those who are blocking the extension of these benefits.

Click here to see pictures from the public hearing on unemployment benefits.

Workers lose big, feel pain on benefits lapse

David Clegg of the Employment Security Commission was the first to give testimony at the public hearing on Wednesday. He told lawmakers present that the average check to jobless workers amounted to $300 a week, but the economic impact of these payments amounts to $10 million per week.

Keith Fountain of Concord was laid off in July 2009. After applying for over 400 jobs, Keith finally took a part-time position working in the deli of a local grocer. Getting by on only his wife's income and unemployment benefits has been difficult enough. "Everything is pretty well tapped out," Keith said. Life is getting a lot harder, now, and Keith urged lawmakers who are holding up the benefits to, "Consider the bill on its own merits."

Joyce Fowler

Joyce Fowler of Garner has been going back to school since she lost her job in the Great Recession. "How am I going to pay my bills?" Joyce asked lawmakers. "We need these benefits. I want to finish my education, but without this, I don't know what I'm going to do."

Greg Smith

Greg Smith is unemployed and a single parent trying to figure out how he can continue his job search with no income coming in. "Now I have to figure out how I'm gonna get to my interview that I've been trying to get for over a year now." Greg brought his two kids to the hearing "because I can't afford childcare. These benefits are necessary and important for my family."

Ken Williams of Wilson used what gas he had to drive to Raleigh to speak at the hearing. "I lost my pride a long time ago," said Ken in emotionally-charged testimony:

"Last night I had to visit my daughter. She wanted to borrow something, and she had to give me gas money to get there and back. I've never been in a position like this. If I can't pay my rent next month, I'm gonna be homeless.

"You folks are holding my future in your hands. You're holding hostage federal money that has nothing to do with the state.

"I'm very upset that Republicans chose to lead in this way."

Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP told lawmakers every day they fail to change the formula that determines our state's eligibility to participate in the 20-week extended benefits program "extends the pain, extends the hurt."

"We are deeply against hijacking federal money. It's nonsense, nonsense, nonsense," Rev. Barber repeated. "Maybe this behavior flies in D.C., but we're supposed to know better how to treat people in the South. Stop extending the despair, extending the hurt, extending the pain."

Kelly Mason

Kelly Mason of Apex moved to North Carolina in 2007, but her and her husband also lost their jobs. She told the committee the expiration of their extended benefits came as a surprise. "We got two weeks notice, and that's it," said Kelly. "I had 18 weeks left. We were planning on moving out," into a less expensive apartment. "Now we can't even afford to do that. We're going to be homeless on June 1."

Leslie of Raleigh said she was laid off one month short of 20 years and came to tell lawmakers not to ignore the plight of others like her who have lost their unemployment benefits. "We are citizens of North Carolina," she said. "We want to work. We're asking you to extend these benefits so we can continue to live."

Keith Bess

Putting the nail in workers' coffins

Keith Bess of Lewisville had a successful career in sales until he was laid off in 2009. While his family spends over 50% of his unemployment benefits on health care, Keith acknowledged he and his wife are in a better position than many jobless workers.  A registered Republican, Keith came to the hearing to remind lawmakers of both parties to "put aside your politics and pass the stand-alone bill," before it's too late for some:

"Denying these people in this room these 20 weeks," Keith warned lawmakers, "you're putting the nail in their coffins."

Darius Little of Durham called on Republican leaders to do what is right. "This helps those who we would call 'The least of us'. I'd ask the party that declared itself the moral party to do just that - to do what Jesus would do," said Darius. "If you have any ounce of compassion, pass this bill."

Click here to read coverage of the hearing by the AP, "NC jobless beg GOP, Democrats to restore benefits".