For a Safer Reopening, Apply Legislative Support: A Look at Unemployment and Worker Protections in North Carolina

 The North Carolina General Assembly just wrapped up their regularly scheduled short session, leaving us with a set of bills that put North Carolinians at risk for exposure to COVID-19 and few bills that protect North Carolinians from the negative health and financial impacts of this pandemic”, such as a more robust plan for unemployment or protection for frontline workers.

Notably, Republicans in the Senate stripped an amendment that would have extended an exemption legalizing mask-wearing past August 1 from a bill in the middle of the night, rendering it technically illegal to wear a mask in public in August due to an old law on the books originally written to target the KKK. This example of the lack of infrastructure for long term pandemic care may set North Carolina up for a wave that will not flatten the curve and undo any early measures to do so. It also leaves a new set of unemployed and underemployed workers at greater risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19, setting the state up for an economic downturn with a difficult road to recovery.

 North Carolina is an employment-at-will state, meaning that “unless there is a specific law to protect employees or there is an employment contract providing otherwise, then an employer can treat its employees as it sees fit (including the assignment of demeaning tasks) and the employer can discharge an employee at the will of the employer for any reason or no reason at all.” While Republicans in the NCGA push for reopening at full speed despite the rising number of cases, they’ve created a system that sets North Carolinians up to return to work with no true safety net if they get sick and can no longer support themselves or their families.

 With no further movement on H1075 or H1057 - bills that would provide extended protections for unemployment and frontline workers - during this short session, North Carolinians are being forced to make hard decisions about their lives and families’ safety in navigating a partially reopened state. Many workers are struggling to fulfill the financial gap they’re facing without work but are forced to hold the fear and responsibility of placing themselves or those they interact with at risk by going back to work at a time where there are no standards for workplace safety. Service industry workers, grocery store workers, farmworkers, and truckdrivers are some of the many residents in North Carolina forced to make these decisions with desires to reopen in the forefront of Republican lawmakers’ agenda. These decisions shouldn’t be held at an individual level when cases are still rising.

 Public health care means more when applied at a statewide level in conjunction with individual actions. Actions like wearing a mask and maintaining social distance are vital, but deliberate legislative support for measures that protect workers will allow North Carolina to open in a way that doesn’t require regressive action and keeps residents safer.