Our Opinion: Compromise can solve our state’s employment crisis
Nam Y. Huh | AP photo
A help wanted sign is displayed at a gas station in Mount Prospect, Ill., on July 27.
It’s time for North Carolinians sidelined during the COVID-19 pandemic and businesses hobbled by public health restrictions to get back to work, and it’s long past time our governor recognizes the employment crisis hampering the state’s economic recovery.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell, Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson raised the alarm during Tuesday’s Council of State meeting, but Gov. Roy Cooper, who chairs the panel of statewide elected officials, minimized those concerns and rebuffed Folwell’s effort to add the subject to the meeting agenda.
Republicans outnumber Democrats 6-3 on the council, and concern over the $300 per week federal unemployment benefit supplement and the disincentive it creates for idled workers to reenter the job market broke along party lines. But this isn’t a partisan issue, and Cooper would do well to seek compromise with officials on the other side of the aisle.
“Every business owner — no matter their race, creed, color or political affiliation — is asking how we can continue to pay into a system that forces us to compete with federal benefits by taxing people who are working, and then using the money for those who don’t,” Folwell said. “The policy is no longer about compassion and generosity, but justice and certainty. At the end of the day, employers across the state who have suffered for over a year during COVID cannot operate without employees. We’re in an employment crisis.”
The treasurer cited a Triangle Business Journal report indicating 75% of businesses can’t hire enough workers. Causey and Robinson echoed their fellow Republican’s concerns, but Cooper turned a deaf ear.
On July 2, Cooper vetoed a bill that would have ended the federal supplement early. The program is scheduled to expire in September unless Congress extends it. Folwell implored the governor to let the $300 weekly payments sunset and decline any effort to continue sweetening the pot for people who pass up new employment opportunities.
The state’s unemployment system is a “captive insurance company,” Folwell explained, and the extra weekly payouts force business owners and workers to subsidize those who don’t wish to fill the many vacancies available.
“Letting these extended benefits expire is the best thing we could do to help employers get reopened,” Folwell said. “I get calls every day from small businesses that say they can’t get people to work because it’s more profitable for them to stay home. They can’t compete against the federal government.”
Cooper has defended the benefit boost, describing it as a lifeline for struggling families. We agree that the program was initially necessary, but Folwell is spot-on in his assessment that it’s now counterproductive.
The double whammy of lockdowns and capacity restrictions followed by a dearth of willing workers has hit Wilson businesses hard. Restaurants and retailers that can’t fill vacancies are in an uphill battle to meet consumer demand.
This economic issue need not devolve into the partisan tug of war it’s sadly become. To crib from a favorite Folwell coinage, it’s not political — it’s mathematical.
Implying that benefit recipients are moochers or lazy people is unfair. They paid into the unemployment system too, and they’re merely responding to the financial incentives they’ve been offered. Expecting people to eagerly work for less money than they’d receive for staying on the jobless rolls is unrealistic.
It’s also a low blow to caricature employers as greedy capitalists who could solve their labor shortages if they weren’t too stubborn to pay workers a living wage. The retail and restaurant industries operate on slim margins, and many businesses are still trying to recover from months of COVID-19 restrictions. When business leaders say they can’t raise pay to match the unemployment benefits without passing the cost along to consumers and triggering inflation, we ought to believe them.
Democrats, Republicans and independents alike own and manage local businesses and lack the deep pockets required to out-compete Uncle Sam. State officials must depoliticize this issue and hammer out a compromise that helps both businesses and workers.
There’s too much daylight between Cooper and the GOP-majority Council of State. We urge the Democratic governor to seek consensus with rational Republicans like Folwell for the greater good of all North Carolinians.
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