Locals brace for cuts to unemployment

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 09:44 AM

Despite having the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country as of December, North Carolina will now offer its citizens far less in unemployment benefits — a move that was met with mixed emotions in Lee County.

On Tuesday, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill that will cut benefits from $535 a week to $350 a week starting July 1. It will also reduce the length of state benefits from 26 weeks — six months — to somewhere between 12 and 20 weeks, depending on the state unemployment rate, which at 9.2 percent is worse than the rate in every state except Nevada, Rhode Island, California and New Jersey.

Locally, Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive has previously slammed McCrory for the unemployment cuts he promised to combine with a higher sales tax and cuts to Medicaid, saying poor people would be unduly harmed by all three. But Charlie Parks, the Lee County Board of Commissioners chairman, has said he appreciated the move that will save the state money and, he said, should make people try harder to get jobs.

Cindy Hall, a local ambassador for the unemployed, said the reality she sees each week is somewhere between the two.

“We have two kinds of people [who] come here,” she said Wednesday morning after the weekly meeting of Sanford Job Seekers, which she directs. “Some that are content to take their benefits and not look very hard (for work), and maybe this will encourage them to try harder. But the majority I see here really do look hard; there’s just not much available. And they need those benefits while they search.”

Michael Johnson, who has been attending Job Seekers to find more work to supplement his part-time job, said he has been on unemployment insurance before and understands

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the need for the state to save money, although he thinks the reduction of $740 a month is too much. Plus, he said, if politicians are going to cut benefits, they must at least help people become employed.

“If they don’t bring in some jobs, they’re cutting their own throats,” he said, adding that the combination of high unemployment with few job opportunities could harm both individuals and the economy as a whole.

“You might as well go out and get a refrigerator box to live in because you’re not going to pay your rent, you’re not going to buy groceries, you’re not going to buy gas,” he said.

Johnson was one of about 40 people of all ages and backgrounds gathered Wednesday at First Baptist Church in Sanford to take notes on the information Hall gathered for them about local job openings or job fairs, as well as to cheer on their fellow attendees with interviews coming up soon. Hall said that each week three or four people get a job, and the market remains extremely competitive.

“These employers tell me they get 50 to 100 applications, and these are not wonderful jobs,” Hall said. “I mean, all jobs are wonderful, you know? But they’re not exactly high-paying.”

She announced slightly more than a dozen jobs Wednesday, ranging from truck or taxi drivers to maintenance workers, cashiers, customer service representatives, mechanics and security guards. She also announced a list of places where Job Seekers attendees were either recently hired or interviewed, which included Magneti Marelli, Central Carolina Hospital, HAVEN of Lee County and several more.

“There are local jobs; it just depends on what you’re looking for,” she said.

Service positions like most of the ones she announced are among the jobs with the most openings in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop service. Between 2008 and 2018, it estimates, the most openings will be in retail, cashier, waiter/waitress, home health aide, food preparation, registered nurses and customer service.

Alexander Ray, who said he has already used up his jobless benefits, was at the Job Seekers meeting looking for work in a custodial or maintenance position. He said he feels for those who won’t get as much as he did.

“It was nice having it coming in the house,” he said. “It helps when you don’t got nothing else. I ain’t complaining.”