In this March 13, 2020 file photo, unionized hospitality workers wait in line in a basement garage to apply for unemployment benefits at the Hospitality Training Academy in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File) Long wait for help
In this March 13, 2020 file photo, unionized hospitality workers wait in line in a basement garage to apply for unemployment benefits at the Hospitality Training Academy in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

The state’s unemployment system, already has one of the most paltry in the nation, was unprepared to deal with the surge of need at the pandemic’s start.

North Carolina was too slow to deliver unemployment checks after COVID-19 hit, a recent state audit found.

The slow response  hurt people’s ability to pay rent and mortgages, and buy necessities like food, the just-released analysis by the Office of State Auditor Beth Wood found. 

The detailed analysis found the state’s NC Division of Employment Security, an executive branch agency under Gov. Roy Cooper,  was unprepared to react to a sudden economic downturn and rapid increase in requests, and wasn’t equipped to get $438 million in the bank accounts of people who desperately needed it. 

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Among those hurting was Shawn Hill-Watkins of Winston-Salem, who spoke to ProPublica in 2020 about having $30 in her checking account and no way to pay rent after waiting more than two months for unemployment.  

“There is a real possibility that we will be outside tomorrow,” Hill-Watkins told the news organization then. “I wake up thinking about it. I go to sleep thinking about it.”

North Carolina already had one of the weakest unemployment systems in the country when COVID-19 hit, with the Republican-led state legislature having enacted changes years prior that capped maximum benefits at $350 a week. 

When the pandemic hit, many like Hill-Watkins waited weeks, or even months, for payments as the state’s unemployment processing system buckled under the sudden surge of a million-plus requests from newly laid-off workers. Unemployment peaked at 13.5% in April 2020, more than three times as high as the state’s current employment rate of 3.9%. 

Going forward, the state needs to ensure it processes claims quickly and scales up faster if another disaster similar in effect to the pandemic were to hit, Woods’ audit recommended.