Cut in unemployment benefits coincides with surge in Caldwell County's needy

Aug. 25, 2013 @ 08:28 AM

The number of low-income people seeking help from Caldwell County Yokefellow, a crisis assistance ministry already straining from long-term high demand because of the slow economic recovery, jumped more than 700 people in July, a 32 percent increase from June.

Perhaps not coincidentally, 590 Caldwell County residents saw their long-term unemployment benefits end in July because of new limits North Carolina imposed starting July 1, according to the N.C. Division of Unemployment Security.

“We think it definitely has to do with their unemployment ending early,”

Yokefellow executive director Sharon Osborne said. “If they’ve been able to sustain a household with that money, they are now unable to. It’s another indicator of the crisis in our community.”

About 70,000 people across the state saw their long-term unemployment benefits end in July because of the change in North Carolina law.

One of them, and one of Yokefellow’s new clients, is Amber Murray, 31, of Hudson, who lost her job as the head cook at Brockford Inn, an assisted living facility in Granite Falls, over a year ago. Since July 2012, Murray had been getting $178 in unemployment benefits from the N.C. Division of Workforce Solutions. In January, she filed for a federal extension of her benefits. When she sent in her weekly certification on July 6, she learned that her benefits had ended. She and her husband, Robert, had only his part-time income from a job at a Burger King to support them and their three children, ages 14, 9 and 4.

“Now, all our bills are behind,” Murray said. “Bill collectors are calling us. We can’t pay the rent, car payment or our utilities.”

In February, Congress voted to extend federal unemployment benefits, which go to workers who have used up their regular state unemployment benefits, through December. But in April, North Carolina became the first state in the country to cut off access to the federal unemployment funds, so instead of six months of coverage the unemployed now will have 12 to 20 weeks. The state also reduced the maximum amount that unemployed people can get each week from $535 to $350.

The Murrays had been receiving Supplmental Nutration Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, but they are among those whose benefits have been delayed by a series of problems with the new computer system that is supposed to streamline state benefits programs.

“I went to recertify in July,” Murray said. “Now, they can’t tell me when I will get that money, they said they are in (processing) June (recertifications).”

Murray finally landed a job at a McDonald’s restaurant but has not yet received her first paycheck. In the meantime, she is making tough choices when it comes to housing, health care and hunger.

“It just all hits you at the same time,” she lamented.