The record number of people unemployed in North Carolina has clogged a system that processes benefits, delaying payment for some workers.
The N.C. Employment Security Commission has a backlog of about 6,000 cases in adjudication, which is used to verify that people who request unemployment benefits qualify for them. In North Carolina, generally, workers can get benefits if they lose their jobs through no fault of their own.
The state, though, checks with employers to ensure that a person is eligible and did not, for instance, get fired. The adjudication process allows for challenges by employers and employees, and the backlog of cases was recently as high as 17,000, said ESC spokesman Andy James.
“We're working overtime and on weekends to bring it down,” James said.
Most people, he said, are getting benefits within three weeks of filing paperwork to receive them.
Unemployment checks are often a fraction of what workers earn on the job, but they can be a lifeline until new work comes along – a more limited prospect given the economic slowdown. Companies including GlaxoSmithKline and Sony Ericsson just this week announced plans to cut hundreds of jobs.
The state unemployment system is straining as unemployment climbs.
In August, the most recent month for which statistics are available, the jobless rate in North Carolina was 6.9 percent. That's up from 4.7 percent a year ago, an increase driven by factory closings, retail layoffs and other actions by companies hurt by the weakened economy.
All told, 314,729 North Carolina workers were without jobs in August, an all-time high.
Further tying up the system was action in Congress during the summer extending unemployment benefits for displaced workers. The N.C. Employment Security Commission had to send letters to eligible workers and process those claims in addition to new unemployment claims coming in.
“It's true to say that some benefits aren't getting out as quickly as we'd like for them to,” James said. “People get stressed out, and I don't blame them.”
Michael Hudson of Apex, west of Raleigh, is among those who has had difficulty getting benefits.
Because of the economic downturn, Hudson said he lost his sales job with the Talking Phone Book, a directory publisher, in August.
Almost immediately, he filed for unemployment benefits because he knew there would be a processing delay.
More than a month later, he still hasn't received the first check.
“I'm really, really in limbo,” Hudson, 51, said. “This shouldn't happen. … I wasn't drunk on the job. I wasn't doing drugs. I didn't do anything wrong.”
Adding to the frustration, Hudson said he felt like he got the runaround from the Employment Security Commission. He initially filed for unemployment online. When he didn't hear anything, he tried to call but constantly received a busy signal because the phone system was slammed.
He hasn't gotten any word on when he might get payment.
“People are really counting on this to get through,” said Hudson, who moved with his wife from Syracuse, N.Y., in May 2007. “I'll find work out there, but in the process it would help if they would put closure on this so at least I have money to throw in a tank of gas, buy food.”
James investigated Hudson's situation and said that his benefits are now on the way. He apologized for any confusion in the process.
“We need to make sure we communicate with people very well, and that's something we strive to do better every day,” James said.