As promised, my print column this week is about the state’s terrifying unemployment situation. I worry about this every day, as anyone in my business should.
When Harry Payne talks about workplace issues he knows his subject well. After all, it’s pretty much been his life’s work. As an attorney he specialized in it. As a politician, he became the state Commissioner of Labor after serving in the General Assembly. Then he headed the state Employment Security Commission as chairman until 2008.
And when Harry Payne talks about unemployment, well, he knows something about that, too.
Been there, done that. Can’t say he liked it much.
Almost no one, Payne says, in direct contradiction to what many in politics like to say when spreading the typical stories about people sitting on their duffs happily collecting unemployment checks.
“It’s not true,” Payne says. “The truth is, people call and beg for work. They still call me and I’ve been out (of the Employment Security Commission) for three years. They still call me and say, ‘find me a job.’”
If only it were that simple.
Payne stopped by the Times-News last week ostensibly to discuss something few are actually talking about at all, the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which is in a $2.6 billion hole to the federal government. Payne, who now works for the N.C. Justice Center as an attorney, was trying to get some information to media outlets before the Legislature takes up the matter of paying the debt in the coming short session.
During our conversation, though, the subject of unemployment in general continued to come up. Again, it’s Payne’s passion.
“My wife tells me I babble,” Payne says with a chuckle, in reference to his spouse, Ruth Sheehan, a longtime friend who worked with me as a reporter with the Times-News in the 1980s before she moved to the News and Observer in Raleigh. She’s out of the news business now and working to get her law degree at UNC. Tuesday, though, was the first chance I’ve had to speak to her husband on any subject.
Turned out to be a significant topic. Unemployment might be the most important issue out there today — my words here, not Payne’s. For me, it’s a story and a huge one. It’s also a tragedy for individuals and the families they support. It’s crushing our economy on every level.
For Payne, it’s all of those things, too. Plus, it’s a little more personal.
You see, in 2008 when the Perdue administration came in to office, Payne was replaced as ESC chairman. It’s the kind of thing that happens in politics all the time. But on this occasion, it occurred as the country was headed into the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The double-digit unemployment rate didn’t bode well for those looking for work. Still doesn’t, even though the rate is now 9.7 percent.
Payne said he was out of work for five months. College educated, law degree, loads of experience — none of those things mattered much when absolutely no jobs are out there to be had.
“When I was unemployed I applied to hundreds and hundreds of places,” Payne said. “It’s frustrating and depressing.”
The numbers are pretty frightening. In 1999, the average number of weeks someone might be unemployed was nine. Today it’s between 17 and 18. That’s only the average. For many it’s far worse.
“There are four unemployed persons for every available job in the state,” Payne said. “If every job is filled, three are still unemployed.”
So Payne understands the plight of those without jobs. He said that by law in North Carolina men and women have to prove they have applied for three jobs a week in order to be eligible for benefits.
“But most are applying for three a day,” he quickly adds.
North Carolina’s unemployment rate is still well above the national average, which is a pretty awful 8.2 percent. So work is scarce and competition more fierce than ever. People are overqualified for the jobs they are applying for and the people who “aren’t competitive” are the ones suffering the most, Payne said.
“Any ageism in the world or ethnic bias, that’s where it’s magnified,” Payne said.
If anything, Payne wants lawmakers to gain a more realistic view of the unemployment picture. Cases of fraud and abuse do exist, but certainly aren’t the norm, he said. The attitude in the Legislature about unemployment is “cold and it’s wrong,” Payne said.
The majority of those without work are earnest folks looking for a chance to keep themselves or their families afloat.
Harry Payne knows this well.