Financial Struggles Due to COVID-19 Concerns? Unemployment Benefits May be Saving Grace for North Carolinians, But More Action is Needed


Given the recent pandemic due to COVID-19, many employees are concerned about their ability to earn an income if their workplace shuts its doors, or even if their hours are simply reduced – and rightfully so. Unfortunately, the law has some significant gaps when it comes to addressing such questions as these are unprecedented times that the law had not yet contemplated. However, recently, in an effort to alleviate some of the strain that the pandemic is placing on employees and employers alike, North Carolina Governor, Roy Cooper, issued Executive Order No. 118.

What Does Executive Order No. 118 Accomplish?

Executive Order No. 118 was issued on March 17, 2020. The order limited the sale of food and beverages from restaurants and bars to carry-out, drive-through, and delivery only, and made changes to unemployment benefits to make it less burdensome for employers, and easier for employees, to obtain these benefits. As the order relates to unemployment, it is specifically in place to provide necessary unemployment benefits to those affect by COVID-19. Those affected by COVID-19 are those who, as a result of the virus, are separated from employment, have had their hours of employment reduced, or those who are prevented from working due to a medical condition caused by COVID-19 or due to communicable disease control measures. These individuals should be eligible for unemployment benefits up to the maximum benefits permitted by federal law.

Prior to the executive order, individuals who were no longer employed, due to no fault of their own, could apply for unemployment benefits. However, there were certain requirements that had to be met in order to apply and acquire such benefits. For starters, the unemployed had to wait one week between the time they became unemployed and the time they were eligible to receive those benefits. Additionally, the unemployed individual had to (i) be able to work, and (ii) be actively seeking employment in order to qualify to receive those benefits.

Fortunately, Governor Cooper’s executive order waives many of the hurdles that were previously required in order to obtain unemployment benefits. First, since businesses are closing overnight and leaving their employees jobless, the order has been structured to address the immediate need by eliminating the one-week waiting period. Second, during this time it is not feasible to require those who are unemployed to actively search for jobs,  because businesses are not likely to be hiring new employees during the current pandemic. Thus, the executive order also eliminates the requirement that individuals actively seek employment if they are to be eligible to receive benefits.

The executive order not only benefits employees, but also provides some relief for employers. Previously, unemployment benefits were paid for by employers. Governor Cooper’s executive order directs the Department of Commerce not to apply charges to employers’ accounts for individuals receiving unemployment benefits for reasons related to COVID-19. Thus, employers who are already facing financial hardships do not have to fret about figuring out where to get the funds to also pay for their employees’ unemployment benefits.

How Should Employees Apply for Unemployment Compensation for COVID-19 Reasons?

Starting at noon on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, the state of North Carolina was officially allowing people to list COVID-19 as a reason for unemployment. Between noon on Tuesday and 7:00 a.m. on Wednesday, 4,721 North Carolinians had filed for unemployment due to COVID-19. This is a stark contrast compared to the 2,000 to 3,000 unemployment claims North Carolina residents typically file during an average week. Due to the spike in applications, the unemployment compensation website has been experiencing delays.

In order to apply for unemployment compensation benefits, you must now either complete an application online by clicking here, or if you do not have access to the internet, you can file over the phone by calling 888-737-0259. While you can file an application online anytime, you can only file a claim over the phone between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Before you begin the application process, however, you will want to have some information in hand. Some of this essential information includes: your social security number, your bank routing number and account number (if you wish to have the unemployment payments directly deposited), and details regarding why you were laid off, or why your hours were decreased, and if you are receiving any vacation or severance pay. A more complete list of pertinent information can be found here.

If you have employment related concerns and want to know more about your rights as they pertain to COVID-19 during this uncertain time, please contact Van Kampen Law so we can assess your situation and attempt to help you navigate these murky waters.

How Can I urge the Governor and my State Representatives to Make Additional Improvements to COVID-19 related Unemployment Benefits?

Even with these improvements, North Carolina’s unemployment safety net remains lacking compared to many other states. In June 2013, the General Assembly gutted North Carolina unemployment benefits by reducing unemployment benefits from $535 per week to $350 per week and reducing the weeks of eligibility from 26 to 12. That retraction needs to be reversed. While the duration of this pandemic is a moving target, its impact could viably exceed the current 12-week cap. Luckily, the number of weeks an individual may receive unemployment benefits for remains a sliding scale at this time and could increase to 20 weeks with a steep increase in unemployment. However, the sliding scale makes the time period for eligibility uncertain, and the small benefit of $350 per week is a drastic cut in pay for many families.

  • To contact Governor Cooper’s office call (919) 814-2000.
  • To contact your state representatives, click here to determine who your representatives are and get their contact information.

If you are interested in learning more about your legal rights during the COVID-19 outbreak, check out our additional resources.

COVID-19 Employment Law Resources For Employees