Legislative building

The North Carolina State Legislative Building is located in Raleigh.

RALEIGH — The North Carolina House of Representatives sent a bill to the North Carolina Senate that would end the $300 extra a week in federal unemployment relief that is scheduled to expire Sept. 6.

Senate Bill 116 — or the “ Putting North Carolina Back to Work Act” — passed the House on June 3 with a vote of 71-36. Rep. Ray Pickett (R — Watauga) spoke on the House floor in favor of the bill.

“Folks in my district, they need people to fill jobs,” Pickett said. “The jobs are there. We’ve started our tourism season and many of our businesses can’t open because they do not have employees. Those jobs were filled before the pandemic started. Those same jobs are there, so we need to pass this bill so those people can go back to work.”

Pickett said employers in his district are offering $12 to $15 an hour for people to work for them, but the businesses haven’t been able to fill those jobs.

Sen. Deanna Ballard (R — Watauga) voted in the original Senate Bill 116 in support of using the federal $300 supplement as a back-to-work bonus, but said she would support the House version of Senate Bill 116.

“The reality is that so many of our businesses are facing a shortage of workers, due in part to the federal supplement,” Ballard said. “The General Assembly is trying to find solutions to this labor shortage since the federal government continues to pay people to stay home despite vaccination rates climbing and the availability of jobs.”

Ballard said that Gov. Roy Cooper’s potential opposition to ending the $300 unemployment supplement makes it harder to become law.

“So we can either continue with the status quo or try to convert the stay-at-home funding into a back-to-work bonus,” Ballard said.

David Jackson, president and CEO of the Boone Chamber of Commerce, said that all types of businesses have been hit by employment issues and elements in Senate Bill 116 would help alleviate those strains.

“This is not just a hospitality issue,” Jackson said. “We have landscapers that can’t get access to materials because their suppliers are not fully staffed. We’ve seen restaurants open one day, close the next, then open the next, because of staffing.”

Jackson said the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce does support the theory that some people are taking advantage of the extra federal unemployment subsidy.

“That subsidy was very important when it was implemented, and I think we are seeing that maybe we are coming to the end of its intended usefulness,” Jackson said.

Area businesses, Jackson said, are trying to balance operations with customer expectations and, in some cases, it’s not wise to open without staffing to provide expected services.

“I’m encouraged to see bipartisan support on this action, and I encourage both sides to continue to work for the people they represent, not their own political aspirations,” Jackson said. “Both sides have seen members break ranks to support this legislation, and that is not always easy to do, so they should be commended.”

The North Carolina Department of Commerce reported that Watauga County had an estimated unemployment rate of 3.2 percent — or 888 out of 27,663 people in the labor force unemployed. Both Avery and Ashe counties had the same estimated unemployment rate of 3.5 percent.

Watauga County has the third lowest unemployment rate in the state while Avery and Ashe county are ranked seventh and eighth lowest, respectively.

The April unemployment numbers — the latest data from the Commerce Department — shows the unemployment for Watauga County dropped .2 percent from March. From April 2020 to April 2021, the unemployment rate dropped significantly, by about 10.7 percent.

The latest available hourly wage data from Watauga County is from 2020, which lists the median hourly wage for industries in Boone.

The data lists management occupations with the highest median hourly wage at $38.08. Food preparation and serving related occupations were the lowest at $8.93 an hour, which also had the highest number of jobs listed at 4,419, according to wage data from Watauga County’s economic development website.

Senate Bill 116 also includes tax forgiveness for Paycheck Protection Program loans, which Jackson said is big for local businesses that are waiting until the PPP tax implications are more clear.

“We have several businesses that are looking at a potential $10,000 to $20,000 swing in what they may owe the state in taxes if North Carolina does not make PPP expenses tax deductible,” Jackson said. “I’ve heard a few even suggest that they would have not taken PPP loans if they knew the tax impact would have hit them at the same time they were trying to ramp up hiring.”

The bill also sends $250 million to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Division of Child Development and Early Education to be used for subsidized child care for eligible children.

“People have seen during the pandemic that sometimes a second income in a two-spouse family is devoted almost solely to childcare,” Jackson said. “You take the person out of the workforce and the child out of child care, and all of the sudden that family finds they can survive on one income and have greater flexibility.”

The bill would be implemented 30 days after it is passed by the North Carolina Senate and if it is signed into law by Cooper. The last action on the bill is listed as being referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate on June 3.

“The work is not done until people are helped, so there is no need for victory laps before the bill crosses the finish line,” Jackson said. “We should be equally dedicated to resolving some of these issues as soon as possible, but recognizing that can’t be just a snap of the fingers either.”

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