NC JUSTICE NEWS: Unemployment Insurance + Rural Impact of Budget Cuts + Better Wages for Restaurant Workers

February 14, 2012

UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE: Federal benefits expire end of Feb.

Last week, the NC Justice Center partnered with unemployed workers and service providers from across the state to urge lawmakers to extend federal unemployment benefits.

If lawmakers don’t act by the end of February, 2.8 million Americans will lose access to unemployment insurance benefits by the end of 2012. More than 157,000 of these individuals reside in North Carolina, and rely on this meager but vital supplement to meet their families’ housing, food, energy and other basic needs. The average weekly benefit amount for an unemployed worker in NC is only $290, which translates to two weeks of groceries for a family of four.

The loudest message at the press conference was simple: unemployed workers want to work. North Carolina currently has a jobs shortfall of over 500,000, and there are more than four unemployed workers for every available job. Until there are enough jobs for these workers to return to the workforce, it’s imperative that lawmakers protect these vulnerable families and bolster the economy in the process, as the jobless use their benefits to pump money into their local communities.

For more information about unemployment insurance and how you can take action, visit www.tarheelworkers.org and follow Tar Heel Workers on twitter: @tarheelworkers.

RESTAURANT WORKERS: Food service industry among lowest paid in NC

Food service jobs are projected to have one of the highest growth rates in North Carolina over the next decade, and yet the current state of the industry leaves little potential for restaurant workers to achieve financial stability and upward economic mobility. In fact, food service industry workers are among the lowest paid in the state. These workers are offered few employment benefits such as health insurance and four out of five workers in food-service occupations lack access to paid sick days.

The current federal and North Carolina tipped minimum wage is just $2.13. Employers can pay workers the lowest, subminimum wage as long as the $2.13 wage plus tips is equal to $7.25 – the binding state and federal minimum wage – over the course of the workweek. The gap between the subminimum wage and minimum wage has increased over the years, and, to make matters worse, instances of wage theft and the misappropriation of tips create a huge pay disparity between tipped workers and the general workforce.

On Monday morning, the NC Justice Center hosted a press conference in downtown Raleigh to draw attention to the subminimum wage, just as Restaurant Opportunities Centers United held a congressional briefing in Washington DC on restaurant workers who are being undervalued and underpaid for their work. Hopefully, lawmakers will look closely at policy solutions that would address these undervalued workers, including raising the subminimum wage for tipped workers and allowing workers to earn paid sick days.

HKonJ: Historic rally garners huge crowds

Thousands of North Carolinians gathered in downtown Raleigh this past weekend to join forces at the sixth annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) rally. Organized by the North Carolina NAACP, HKonJ issued a rallying cry for justice for all, as represented by nearly 125 different organizations from around the state.

Students, activists, families, veterans, and many others marched in support of education, job building, environmental awareness, the protection of the rights of immigrants, voting rights, and health care reform. Others came out to protest tuition hikes in the state university system and the marriage amendment, which will be on the ballot come May 8.

"We are seeing a nightmarish, regressive, mean-spirited public policy taking over our General Assembly,” said Rev. William Barber, president of the NC NAACP. “They attack public education, attack voting rights, and balance the budget on the back of the poor. In the worst economic times, we’ve seen the most draconian cuts to services that help the poor.”

RURAL IMPACT: Rural counties hit hardest by state, federal budget

A new report shows that North Carolina’s rural communities have been hit the hardest by state and federal budget decisions.

Compared to their urban counterparts, rural communities are significantly less well-positioned to fund basic government operations, particularly during times of austerity budgeting. These communities show troubling signs of widespread economic hardship – more residents living in poverty, more individuals without any form of public or private health insurance, and lower overall wealth.

The Budget & Tax Center report points out that such economic hardship – on top of low or negative population growth and a higher reliance on government revenue – has made rural counties much more sensitive to state and federal spending decisions. Lower external funding to these counties’ government could create a budget cut that would directly impact lower-wealth communities, and such a gap would be hard to overcome without cutting local jobs and core services that support the county’s most vulnerable residents. The weakened economic conditions of North Carolina’s rural areas will only worsen if state lawmakers continue to take a cuts-only approach to state budgeting.

H-2B: Dept. of Labor improves protections for U.S., foreign workers

The U.S. Department of Labor is taking steps to improve the H-2B program, which allows employers to bring foreign workers into the U.S. on a temporary basis for non-agricultural jobs when U.S. workers aren't available. With any luck, the new changes will strengthen worker protections, improve U.S. workers’ access to jobs, and curb the exploitation of foreign workers.

DOL announced final regulations last week that will include changes to several aspects of the H-2B program, including:

  • Requiring employers to keep records of their U.S. worker recruitment activities; demonstrate a truly “temporary” need for workers before they can apply for H-2B certification; put job postings online; accept referrals from state workforce agencies; and contact former employees and community organizations with these job opportunities.
  • Stronger worker protections for U.S. and foreign workers by requiring employers to provide U.S. workers at least the same wages and benefits provided to H-2B workers.
  • Requiring employers to provide the Labor Department with copies of all agreements with recruiters; contractually forbid recruiters from charging illegal fees; pay or reimburse workers for visa, border crossing, and other related costs; and provide workers with all tools, supplies, and safety equipment required for the work.
  • Penalties for employers and their agents who violate program rules. These include assessments of back pay, debarment from the program and assessment of civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation.

The new rule will go into effect on April 23.

DEFENDERS OF JUSTICE: Nominations & Save the Date

The Defenders of Justice (DOJ) Awards are given by the Justice Center to honor individuals or organizations that are making significant contributions in the following areas: Litigation; Research and Policy Development; Public Policy Advocacy and Grassroots Empowerment/Community Capacity Building. Recipients will be honored at our annual Defenders of Justice Event on Thursday, May 10, 2012.

Eligible nominees must be based in North Carolina. If you would like to nominate an individual or organization in one of the following categories, please complete this nomination form and return to Lucy Martinez at lucy@ncjustice.org no later than Feb. 28:

  • Policy Research and Advocacy - Conducting and disseminating research and development alternatives to existing policy.
  • Legislative Advocacy – Working with traditionally underrepresented populations to define and shape public policies.
  • Grassroots Empowerment/Community Capacity Building - Developing programs designed to help community based organizations or individuals be leaders within their own communities. These organizations or individuals will have examples of programs that have been successful.

Stay tuned for more details on the Defender of Justice Awards over the next few months.

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