By ELIOT DUKE
Of the Record staff
North Carolina entered the month of March riding high.
The state featured high employment, low unemployment and a generally strong economy.
Over the past two months, North Carolina went from sunshine to the dark side of the moon, as the number of people out of work reached historic proportions. As the calendar trudged towards June, unemployment numbers ballooned to more than one million, straining an employment commission that ran on short staff prior to COVID-19 due to a lack of demand.
“We have taken more claims in the last 64 days than we have taken in the last six years combined,” Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary of the North Carolina Department of Commerce Division of Employment Security (DES), said in a statement to the Senate Committee on Commerce and Insurance. “To give you an idea of what we’re facing, in the last 64 days, we’ve taken more claims than we did for the whole year of 2009 during the Great Recession, when we took 1.2 million claims.”
DES claims surged by 5,000% since the pandemic-induced economic lockdowns went into effect. Daily calls to the agency spiked from 6,000 to 42,000 since March 15, catching the DES flat-footed as it tried to address such a rise in demand for services.
“Like other states around the country, we started off ill-equipped to handle so many claims in such a short period of time,” said Taylor. “But we remain focused on processing these claims and getting benefits to those whose lives depend on it, while protecting the integrity of the unemployment system. Our call center has been completely overwhelmed. Many people have been on hold for hours, disconnected because the hold queue is full, or dissatisfied with the service the agent was able to provide. We are fixing it.”
Taylor’s letter detailed steps the Employment Security implemented in an effort to meet the massive increase in unemployment claims, which passed 1.2 million statewide on Wednesday with more than 920,000 directly related to COVID-19. Administrators focused on three ways the department can improve service: upgrading systems, strengthening the workforce and improving processes.
Employment Security added server capacity and network bandwith to handle increased call volume and installed a chat and customer service tool to the website. It also started mailing out important documents, including bringing in in-house equipment and private vendors to triple the agency’s ability to print and send out millions of statutorily required documents.
DES entered the COVID-19 pandemic with approximately 500 employees. Taylor said 2,600 Employment Security workers, Division of Workforce Solutions staff, temporary employees and private call center representatives now help process unemployment claims.
“We are providing expedited training to new employees, and we have cross-trained existing employees to help in the areas of greatest need,” Taylor said. “Our staff is working evenings, weekends and even holidays because of the increased workload, and I’m grateful for their commitment to finding solutions for North Carolina.”
With a backlog growing, additional staff focused on prioritizing initial claims and DES implemented an easier way for claimants to check the status of their claim without having to speak to a call center agent.
“We are aware that we still have significant problems meeting the needs of North Carolinians,” said Taylor. “We expect to keep getting better, not just in the call center but in all areas of our operation. We know that people are relying on these benefits to pay their bills or feed their families. We are committed to making sure all claimants receive the assistance they need in a timely manner.”
More than 38 million people nationwide filed for unemployment since the middle of March as the country’s unemployment rate reached 14.7% in April, the highest number since the Great Depression.
For more information, visit des.nc.gov.
Eliot Duke can be reached at [email protected] or at 910-230-2038.