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N.C. can do better on jobless benefits backlog

The unemployed in North Carolina just can’t catch a break. In the 2013 legislative session, they became casualties in the ideological war over how to grow jobs with lawmakers slashing state jobless benefits, an action that also resulted in a cutoff of federal long-term benefits for more than 65,000 N.C. residents. That loss could have been easily avoided if legislators had delayed the state changes until January.

And, as a Sunday Observer story details, state officials have added more insult and injury to the plight of the unemployed with up to a four-month wait to get the money many desperately need. Nearly 13,000 of the N.C. jobless are stuck in a severe backlog in the state’s unemployment office waiting for a decision on their request for benefits.

Officials with the N.C. Division of Employment Security blame the problem on the recession – actually two of them, one in 2001 and the other hit in December 2007 – which forced hundreds of thousands into unemployment. Jobless claims soared after the first recession, and it took the state years to catch up on resolving claims. A second recession hit and claims soared even higher. Now, resolving contested claims takes weeks, even months.

ESC workers may be doing the best they can with inadequate resources. But the state erred in not ramping up staffing enough to handle the demand. The state’s increase last year of 10 temporary appeals referees – the people who hear disputed claims – looks like too little, too late. Despite the extra help, the state is still below the federal guidelines on how quickly rulings are issued after appeals. A state meets requirements if it has issued 60 percent of all first-level benefit appeal decisions within 30 days, and at least 80 percent within 45 days. For June, North Carolina fulfilled only 0.7 percent of appeals decisions within 30 days, and just 1.7 percent within 45 days.

That’s shameful – not so much because it’s a failure to meet a bureaucratic deadline but because thousands of N.C. residents have been left in dire straits in the meantime. Some can barely make mortgage payments, car payments and buy groceries. Others, like Phillip Woods, who needs dialysis three days a week, have seen their savings wither away while they paid attorneys fees for their appeals and struggled with high medication bills. Woods, who lost his job at Childcare Network last August, finally got his hearing and won his appeal in April.

This is wrong. Adding to this suffering are complaints about poor customer service. Some making appeals have called the ESC office and been put on hold for up to an hour, and too often never got a promised called back from officials.

The state can do better, if N.C. leaders want to. We have only to look at what’s happened at the state Department of Motor Vehicles to see how making improvements a priority can bring results.

Gov. Pat McCrory pledged before he was elected that he would make the DMV “more customer-friendly.” He was spurred by his own experience waiting in a long line at a DMV, an encounter he often retold on the campaign trail. McCrory vowed to expand hours and days the DMV would be open, and in a matter of months that has happened. And more DMV offices are planned. Said Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, “improving customer service, giving citizens more access, and providing better interactions with government are top priorities for us.”

The state should apply that mantra to helping hard-working North Carolinians knocked down by the economy but struggling to get back on their feet. They deserve no less.

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