Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., left, talks with a staff member as Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett testifies during the second day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. Tillis and other GOP senators have been criticized for taking up a speedy Barrett confirmation without a coronavirus relief package in hand. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP) Sen. Thom Tillis
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., left, talks with a staff member as Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett testifies during the second day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. Tillis and other GOP senators have been criticized for taking up a speedy Barrett confirmation without a coronavirus relief package in hand. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP)

With federal lawmakers stalled over coronavirus relief talks, North Carolina workers impacted by the pandemic say they can’t wait on politics. 

It’s been three weeks since American Airlines announced the furlough of hundreds of Charlotte-based employees. Zattier Marvin, who works in passenger services for the pandemic-wracked airline, has seen many of her coworkers lose their jobs. 

To her, it’s incomprehensible that a second round of coronavirus relief has not been approved by federal lawmakers in Washington, DC, particularly the Republican-controlled US Senate, which is expected to wrap a speedy confirmation process for US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in the coming days. They will do so even with GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicating he wants to wait until after the election for action.

“If protecting these jobs and the families they support isn’t an urgent issue, I don’t know what is,” Marvin said Tuesday.

Marvin was one of several North Carolina workers impacted by the pandemic who spoke to reporters Wednesday in a virtual press conference organized by the Communications Workers of America, a national labor organization that represents workers in telecommunications, news media, education, health care and the airlines industry.   

She called on senators, particularly Sen. Thom Tillis, to push for more COVID-19 aid. Federal unemployment benefits extended to workers at the beginning of the pandemic lapsed in July. And Republicans and Democrats in DC have been bitterly at odds over the amount of additional relief funds to allocate. 

“I want our senators to imagine what would happen if they suddenly couldn’t pay for food for themselves or their families,” Marvin said Wednesday. 

Tillis told WRAL this week that he is expecting federal lawmakers to strike a deal on coronavirus relief before the election, but he has been a target for criticism over the legislative delays. 

The virus is surging again in NC, only exacerbating the economic turbulence of the pandemic. New job numbers Tuesday showed the state’s unemployment is also surging in September, rising to 7.3%. That’s below the pandemic high of about 12.9% in April, but double the pre-pandemic rate. 

According to the new jobs report, there are about 357,000 North Carolinians classified as unemployed, but worker advocates said this week that is an undercount became some workers might have given up on returning to the workforce.

MaryBe McMillan, president of the NC AFL-CIO, which represents more than 100,000 workers in the state, pointed out the new report shows the state with 300,000 fewer jobs than it held before the pandemic.

Zattier Marvin, an American Airlines worker in NC, said with many of her colleagues furloughed during the pandemic, federal lawmakers must move on coronavirus relief. (Image via screenshot)

‘Woefully inadequate’ state unemployment program

North Carolina is often criticized for its unemployment benefits, which, after Republican legislative reforms in 2013, became some of the least generous benefits in the nation. Tillis was speaker of the state House of Representatives at the time of the controversial unemployment overhaul.  

McMillan said federal aid is especially important in NC with such a “woefully inadequate” state system.

“If Tillis and other leaders can go into rapid response mode to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, then they can do the same for their constituents,” she said.

Workers in the state are asking for federal unemployment benefits, as well as aid for those facing foreclosure. 

Tillis’ campaign did not respond to Cardinal & Pine requests for comment Wednesday, but the incumbent senator has emphasized his support for a coronavirus relief package earlier this year. However, the impasse over additional funding—President Trump and Democrats in the US House of Representatives are asking for more cash than Republican senators—has lawmakers like Tillis caught in the middle.

“For Thom Tillis, who is on a path toward losing this Senate seat, the last six years have been about one thing: his own political survival,” Kate Frauenfelder, a spokesperson for Cal Cunningham, Tillis’ election challenger, said Tuesday after the jobs report was released. “Instead of playing politics while North Carolinians’ health and livelihoods hang in the balance, he needs to stand up to Mitch McConnell and pursue real, bipartisan COVID relief.”

‘What are they actually doing for us?’

Uschi Woronin, a flight attendant for American Airlines, is one of those furloughed workers in North Carolina. A Huntersville resident, she said Wednesday that it’s been nearly a month since she lost her income. 

“What are they actually doing for us?” she asked of federal lawmakers. “The same elected officials who several months ago called us ‘essential workers,’ keeping the country going, now I don’t feel essential. A better word would have been ‘expendable’ or ‘disposable.’ Because that’s how we’re being treated.”

John Motsinger, an unemployed stagehand from Winston-Salem, said he hasn’t worked a gig since March. And he said he’s seen multiple colleagues in the industry commit suicide in the last year as the pandemic shuttered entertainment venues. 

“We have seen families being torn apart,” he said. “This is not a question that can wait until February. People are dying of this.”

Motsinger added that, if lawmakers can act so quickly on Barrett’s confirmation, they must make relief a priority.  

“We have been forgotten,” said Motsinger. “We are not going on days. We are not going on weeks. We are going on months of unemployment.”