Some of the 37,000 out-of-work people who just lost their extended unemployment benefits came to the state capitol Tuesday to protest the political faceoff between Republican legislators and Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue that caused their loss.
Perdue on Saturday vetoed legislation that would have kept benefit checks flowing, but only at the cost of her accepting a double-digit budget cut that Republican leaders wanted. She called that "extortion." GOP leaders said they combined the two issues to ensure that schools, state agencies and contractors know how much state spending they could count on if budget negotiations drag beyond the start of the new budget year in July.
Jobless workers whose payments were stopped could recover the money later if legislators and Perdue can agree to change an eligibility formula.
Tracy Whitman of Burlington said he understands what both sides in the political tussle wanted to accomplish, but he risks losing everything unless his benefits are restored.
"Both the House and Senate and the governor are all wrong," he said at a news conference organized by North Carolina's AFL-CIO and the North Carolina Justice Center, a liberal think tank. "It's third-grade posturing -- you either do it my way or else. ... Thirty-seven thousand people are out here watching this tennis match between our legislature and the governor. Nobody's winning."
The 50-year-old was laid off by a road construction company in September 2009 and started studies this year at a Durham community college in health information technology. He said he's continued looking for work while attending school. Without a job or the restored benefits, he said he'll have no choice but to move in with his 78-year-old mother in Florida.
"I stand to lose my house, my car, everything. If I can't have a car to go back and forth to school, I'll have to drop school, so I lose that," he said.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, indicated Tuesday they had no immediate plans to revisit what they wanted in return for extending benefits.
"We sent a bill to the governor that extended the unemployment benefits. We need to remember that we're talking about the extension for folks who have already received benefits" for a year and a half, Berger said.
The $494 a week Gary Price of Salisbury was collecting paid the bills for his wife and three children, as well as paying the loan his grandfather took out to buy Price's home and land to keep from losing it to repossession.
"Family has stepped in to help, but now they can't help no more," said Price, 43, who's been jobless since March 2009. "What benefits I had coming in, every penny went to the bills, groceries, or clothing or something for the kids. It's been five years since I bought the kids Christmas."
He spent two decades driving and then manufacturing trucks, but the available jobs for truck drivers are closed off because employers want to see two recent years of experience, he said.
North Carolina is one of about three dozen states in which an extended benefits program of up to 20 weeks of compensation was created as a way to lessen the pain for the long-term unemployed caught in the recession's massive job losses.
The U.S. Labor Department notified North Carolina officials two weeks ago that the extended benefits program had to stop paying out after Saturday because the state's recent three-month average unemployment rate had improved from 2010 and 2009. South Carolina and 13 other states have passed legislation to revise their formulas and keep the extended benefits flowing, the state's Employment Security Commission said.
While North Carolina has seen its unemployment rate drop slightly from double digits last recorded in September, no one expects the thousands of jobs lost in manufacturing, construction, banking and other hard-hit industries core to the state's economy to return soon. In March, the unemployment rate fell slightly to 9.7 percent, compared with 9.8 percent in February and 11.3 percent in March of last year, The Employment Security Commission said Tuesday.
But most economists believe the jobless rate will stay high as workers who have run out of unemployment benefits or who have given up looking and are no longer counted in the official data come back into the work force. Tuesday's data show the number of people on state unemployment rolls decreased by 1,949 workers, to 434,996 on the official jobless count. At the same time, the number of people employed increased by 13,402 to 4.05 million.
Keith Fountain, 48, of Concord said he supported Perdue's decision and wanted GOP legislators to understand that a family was behind each of the 37,000 jobless like him who've had their benefits stopped.
"This bill has nothing to do with any budget. We're not line items on the budget. We're people who need to have a little bit of support. We're not beggars. We're not hobos. We're not bums. We're out looking for work, it's just not there," Keith Fountain. "We deserve more than to be treated like a political toy."