Jobs picture darkens in wake of coronavirus shutdowns

TOUGH TIMES: As state and locally mandated business closures ripple throughout Western North Carolina, thousands of local residents are facing unemployment and a very uncertain future. Changes in unemployment rules may help ease the process of applying for and receiving benefits. Photo from Getty Images

The job market in Buncombe County is showing signs of deterioration this week as employers let workers go or pull back on hiring because of the economic disruption caused by COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The number of jobs open in the county listed through NCWorks, the state agency that helps job seekers, dropped by 5% March 17-18 alone.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a March 17 executive order making it easier for people statewide who have lost their jobs to get unemployment benefits, but many workers will find the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow to be comparatively skimpy.

The maximum weekly benefit jobless workers in North Carolina can get is $350, and the average amount paid is $264 a week, which ranks 41st among the states, according to data compiled by the N.C. General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division. On average, those eligible for benefits get unemployment checks for 8.6 weeks, which ranks North Carolina 49th, the researchers say. The period of time jobless people in the state can get benefits is also among the shortest in the country.

Buncombe County has frequently had the lowest unemployment rate in the state in recent years. The county figure stood at 2.5% in December, the most recent month for which county-level figures are available. That represented a decline from the 2.9% rate recorded in December 2018.

The Asheville NC Works office has received numerous contacts from job seekers, and the agency’s website “is just overwhelmed with people” looking for work, says office head Rodney Embler. Even in the face of a rapidly slowing economy, some listings for new jobs are coming in, and searching for work is far from a futile exercise, he says. Recent listings include job openings at a local senior care facility, landscaping companies and temp agencies.

Loosening the rules

Cooper’s order:

  • Removes the one-week waiting period to apply for unemployment compensation. The waiting period had previously meant that jobless people got no compensation for the first week they were out of work.
  • Removes the requirement that people must be looking for work in order to receive benefits. Job seekers previously had to contact three employers a week as part of their job search.
  • Says employers will not be held responsible for benefits paid out because of jobless claims directly related to COVID-19. The rates businesses pay for unemployment insurance ordinarily increase when their workers file jobless claims.
  • Eases other unemployment claims rules.

Cooper announced the changes the same day he ordered limits on the operations of restaurants and bars. “These changes are designed to lessen the hit on our economy and workers’ wallets,” he said. “We know people want to work and that businesses want to stay open. The reality is that many can’t.”

The quickest and most efficient way to file for unemployment benefits is to go online at, the state Division of Employment Security says. Those without access to a computer may file by calling 888-737-0259.

Many offices of NCWorks have either closed or reduced the hours they are open to the public. Information about local offices, including new operating hours, is available at NCWorks.govThe Asheville office remains open, but the state Department of Commerce asks that people apply for benefits via computer or phone instead of visiting in person.

The Asheville office was set to be open through March 20 but closed to the public after that. Embler says people will still be able to call the office at 828-251-6200 or visit its website,, in addition to the statewide site.

Dropping the requirement that people seeking jobless benefits must look for new work addresses two issues unemployed people had faced before Cooper’s order, says Larry Parker, a spokesman for the state Division of Employment Security. Many people out of work hope their employer will call them back to work quickly, possibly making a new job search unnecessary, and few employers are hiring nowadays anyway, he said.

Parker said his agency has recorded a “huge” spike in the number of people filing unemployment claims statewide. There were about 2,500 claims filed during the week that ended March 6, then roughly 3,500 the week that ended March 13. But there were 18,000 claims related to COVID-19 in just two days, March 17 and 18, he said on March 19.

NCWorks’ website showed 5,532 job listings for Buncombe County as of March 18, down from 5,828 from the day before. A few of those listings were first posted within the past few days, while others are older, making it difficult to say how many employers are actively seeking to fill positions given the recent dramatic changes in the overall economic picture.

“Employers are a little overwhelmed,” and removing a job listing might not be their first priority in these troubled times, Embler says.

Payments are no bonanza

North Carolina’s unemployment benefits have been less generous since the General Assembly and then-Gov. Pat McCrory slashed them in 2013, saying the steps were necessary because the trust fund that pays out benefits was dramatically in the red.

The state now has $3.9 billion in reserve to pay claims, which legislative researchers say ranks it 13th on one measure of solvency.

Republican backers of the changes say they put North Carolina in a much better position to weather increased demands for benefits caused by COVID-19, and there are indications that legislative leaders will support more generous payments this year. “At $3.8 billion, North Carolina has one of the largest unemployment reserves in the country,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement March 17. “Reforms put in place years ago helped build that large balance to allow the state to adjust its benefits program in response to an economic downturn.

“What adjustments to the state program might be necessary will become clearer once we have more finality on what the federal program will look like. But we have a multibillion surplus for times like this,” Berger said.

Cooper said he expects the federal government will take action to help states pay unemployment claims.

Critics say the legislature went too far in 2013 and should make adjustments to give the unemployed more money. “The changes enacted in North Carolina amounted to the most severe cuts ever enacted by any state during the 80-plus-year history of American unemployment insurance,” MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, and Rick Glazier, executive director of the progressive think tank and advocacy group North Carolina Justice Center, wrote March 18.

“At the time (of the cuts), legislators claimed that when the trust fund was solvent, these draconian cuts would be revisited. That time has clearly arrived,” McMillan and Glazier wrote. The two say that North Carolina’s jobless payments only replace an average of 32 cents of every $1 in lost income for unemployed workers and that economists say the ratio should be 50% or higher.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.