At the start of the black-and-white TV movie on Saturday mornings Shock Theatre that blinked on before the sun or the parents arose, there was always a moment that kept us kids barricaded behind the safety of cushions or a blanket. Right after the loud scary music and the Japanese titles, there appeared a misty Yokohama Harbor, with ships resting at anchor while a city slept. The camera focus narrowed on where neither ship nor shore could be seen and came to rest on the deepest part of the harbor.
The bubbles coming to the surface of the water tipped us that what was coming was gonna be big, green and ugly, and whatever emerged was surely destined to wade ashore to stomp all over the lives of innocent people who slumbered unaware.
Theres good reason to believe something scary and possibly devastating will soon come out of the state legislature, but lawmakers have been careful to make sure the public doesnt know details of what is soon to come ashore. For the past nine weeks, a small committee of legislators, aided by Chamber of Commerce consultants, has been working to devise a bill that determines who will repay the current $2.4 billion debt owed to the federal government for unemployment benefits paid out during the recession. They havent revealed the terms or shape of what is coming, but what little we know and recent history makes us fearful for those without a cushion.
In simple terms, 34,476 of the states almost 200,000 businesses have not paid the $2.5 billion in unemployment insurance premiums necessary to cover what their layoffs cost the system and state. These 1/6th of our employers now have large negative accounts for money they owe the system. The state borrowed from the federal government to cover that shortfall. That debt was caused by a whopping series of unjustified premium reductions given to employers in the 1990s, followed by unemployment from two recessions that lawmakers could not have foreseen. That collision of events drained the states unemployment insurance trust fund a fund of reserves meant to cushion employers from having deeply negative accounts.
Now the same business groups responsible for the excessive cuts to unemployment insurance premiums that drained the reserves want the very victims of this economy to pay the cost of re-filling it by forfeiting benefits. Ideas that have been advanced seem to be about forcing self deportation of people from the unemployment insurance system, expediting their family crisis and devastation. Squeezing those seeking unemployment benefits harder will not create jobs. The economy pushed hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians out of their jobs, but legislators seem not to notice that the same economy has put re-employment out of reach of so many.
There have been no public discussions or involvement of workers or their advocates in the committees work to date, but we know the Chambers consultants have suggested slashing the maximum benefits to workers by almost one third and requiring a sacrifice of their last five weeks of eligibility for benefits. The same legislative majority delayed benefits to almost 50,000 families in an effort to force Gov. Bev Perdues hand on a veto of a bill that did not involve unemployment insurance.
Next year, when the legislature and the governorship will be controlled by the same party, there will be little chance of veto and no good reason to hide or hurry a major bill through a committee or the process.
These bubbles tell us what is coming will be big and scary. If it rushes ashore and stomps on the lives of innocent, vulnerable working people already in crisis, its going to be ugly. In the near-silence of having been told so little, we have heard only the familiar horror-show soundtrack.
Harry Payne is a former N.C. labor commissioner and currently senior counsel for policy and law for the Workers Rights Project at the N.C. Justice Center.
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