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The number of people seeking help with lost wages from Florence has surpassed Matthew

Quentin Shaw of Laurel Hill missed four days of work at the Kordsa plant in Scotland County because of Hurricane Florence. On Monday, Oct. 8, he filed for disaster unemployment assistance from the state of North Carolina in hopes of trying to get back some of the salary he missed out on.
Quentin Shaw of Laurel Hill missed four days of work at the Kordsa plant in Scotland County because of Hurricane Florence. On Monday, Oct. 8, he filed for disaster unemployment assistance from the state of North Carolina in hopes of trying to get back some of the salary he missed out on. zeanes@newsobserver.com

Some 9,300 North Carolinians have applied for “disaster-related” unemployment benefits in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

Many of those same people, almost 8,000, have also applied for disaster unemployment assistance, an additional benefit for those left without wages because of the storm.

That’s nearly four times the number of people who requested disaster unemployment assistance (DUA) after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, said Larry Parker, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Division of Employment Security. The data was compiled from Sept. 28 to Oct. 10, Parker added.

And the number is expected keep climbing “every day over the next couple of months,” he said as more people learn about the benefit and are able to submit online applications or make their way to an NC Works office to file a claim.

For many in Eastern North Carolina, especially hourly workers, self-employed workers, fishermen and farmers, the hurricane resulted in several days and, in some cases, weeks without pay. Those lost wages also came at the end of the month, when many have bills, like mortgages or rent and electricity, coming due.

Lillie Johnson, a weaver, reckons she missed out on hundreds of dollars because of the four days of work she missed when Kordsa, the textile company she works for in Scotland County, lost power.

It would be “a great help” if I get something out of this, Johnson said Monday as she filled out unemployment paperwork, “ ’cause my check was short. ... The electric bill doesn’t stop growing just because there was a storm.

“Sometimes you gotta rob Peter to pay Paul, so I guess Paul is going to get paid this time.”

Metro areas hurt worse

The state has already paid out more than $300,000 in claims and could easily pay out several million. After Hurricane Matthew, the state paid out more than $2.8 million for storm-related unemployment claims. In total, the state received 7,545 applications for regular unemployment and around 2,200 for DUA after Matthew.

The claims have been higher this time because of the areas affected by the storm, said Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary for Employment Security.

Hurricane Florence had a much larger impact on metropolitan areas, such as Wilmington, Jacksonville and New Bern, while Hurricane Matthew hit more rural areas, Taylor said.

“We got the sense that as the storm sat on those areas with a much higher labor market that we were going to be dealing with much greater claims numbers.”

So far the claims have borne out their thinking with the majority coming from New Bern, Wilmington and Jacksonville, Taylor said.

Disaster unemployment assistance is available to people who live in one of the 28 counties approved for federal disaster and is meant to help residents who were — or are still — unable to work because of flooded roads, power outages and building damage.

It also helps those who are ineligible for standard unemployment insurance recoup some of those lost wages from the storm. People may not be eligible for regular unemployment benefits because they’ve already used their 12-week allotment for the year or because they haven’t been in their job long enough to qualify for benefits.

Workers, however, must apply for standard unemployment as well as disaster unemployment assistance. They can do so simultaneously. Standard unemployment benefits pay up to $350 a week for up to 12 weeks while DUA pays up to $350 a week for up to 27 weeks. The longest anyone could receive benefits is for 27 weeks.

‘I didn’t even know you could do this’

The Division of Employment Security has been in an all-hands-on-deck mode since Florence hit North Carolina, with employees up and down the chain of command helping process claims. In Onslow County, DES even sent the Division of Workforce Solutions’ only bus to create a mobile computer lab for residents to use to file applications.

In Scotland County — which has the state’s largest unemployment rate at 7.6 percent — the state’s NC Works office for handling claims in downtown Laurinburg was flooded by the storm, forcing its workers to temporarily relocate to Scotland County’s economic development office.

downtown Laurinburg
Hurricane Florence caused a vacant building in downtown Laurinburg to collapse as it made its way through the eastern part of North Carolina. Zachery Eanes zeanes@newsobserver.com

Many of the Scotland County’s rural roads — and even parts of the main thoroughfare through downtown Laurinburg — were flooded and damaged during the storm, keeping many workers away from their jobs.

Because of its damaged office, NC Works is sending its employees out to large companies that had to close during the storm.

On Monday, NC Works employees went to Kordsa in Laurel Hill to help workers file claims. Kordsa, which employs around 100 people, manufactures nylon wiring for tires — the stuff that supports the shape of a tire. The company’s building lost power and the roads around it flooded, causing it to halt operations for four days.

“It would be very hard for (the company) to make up four days of lost wages,” while also missing four days of production, said Mark Myers, manager of human resources for Kordsa’s North American operations. That is why the company asked the state to help its employees file claims on Monday, Myers said.

Wayne Johnson, who performs maintenance at Kordsa, and many of his co-workers didn’t know they were eligible to apply for lost wages until state officials came by with paperwork on Monday.

Wayne Johnson
Wayne Johnson of Laurel Hill, N.C., missed three days of work at the Kordsa plant in Scotland County because of Hurricane Florence. He had to take vacation days because of the storm. Zachery Eanes zeanes@newsobserver.com

Johnson, who had to use vacation time to cover some of the days he missed during and after the storm, was filing a claim on Monday along with dozens of his fellow employees.

Quentin Shaw, a twisting operator at the plant, also was unaware of the assistance until Monday. Shaw said he wished the company would’ve just covered the days the workers missed, rather than having to fill out paperwork.

“People on salary don’t have to worry” about missing work like this, Shaw said. “This is not going to cover everything I bet.”

How to apply for Disaster Unemployment Assistance

Workers are only eligible for disaster unemployment benefits if they’re in one of the 28 counties in eastern North Carolina that have been approved for federal disaster assistance.

Eligible counties are: Beaufort, Bladen, Brunswick, Carteret, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Duplin, Greene, Harnett, Hoke, Hyde, Johnston, Jones, Lee, Lenoir, Moore, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pender, Pitt, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Scotland, Wayne and Wilson.

To be eligible for any week of DUA, an individual must meet one or more of these conditions as a direct result of a major disaster

  1. No longer have a job

  2. Unable to reach their place of employment

  3. Scheduled to start work but unable to reach the job

  4. Become the bread-winner or major support of family because of disaster-related death of the head of household

  5. Cannot work because of injury directly caused by the declared disaster

An application must be filed within 30 days after DUA is made available in a county that has been declared eligible for disaster benefits.

To apply for assistance you should call toll free at 1-866-795-8877 or apply at des.nc.gov.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes
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