DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- As the $600 weekly federal unemployment payments are set to end, tens of thousands of North Carolinians are anxious about an uncertain future.
"It's been a lifeline for me. Without it, I can't even figure out how I would have survived," said Sara Fearrington of the additional funds.
Prior to the pandemic, she was a full-time server at a Waffle House in Durham, where she had worked for nearly four years.
However, her hours were drastically cut back to just one day a week. Fearrington said her $3.15 plus tips salary was not enough to outweigh the health risks she faced.
A mother of six, including a rising fifth grader with ADHD, she's concerned for her children as they prepare to start their school year remotely.
"If I can't pay my bills, my kids can't learn. So then I would have to make the additional choices of how am I going to do this," said Fearrington. "How am I going to network for my children to have a sufficient future?"
Fearrington, a member of the workers' rights advocacy group NC Raise Up, hopes this leads to higher starting wages for tipped workers.
"They absolutely should. This is definitely the wake-up call for people to understand that tipped workers go to work to do their job. But we also have to take a lot that comes with it, it's almost like begging," said Fearrington.
North Carolina's maximum unemployment benefit is $350, which covers 12 weeks. The nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center reports the average benefit is just $265, though many people make less than that.
"It's been hard to live on $187 a week (in state unemployment) and the $600 is an absolute godsend because now I can buy food, pay my rent, do all the normal things," said Starr Marham, a stagehand who has worked at local theaters for thirty years.
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Markham, a member of IATSE Local 417, has reached out to Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr to encourage them to extend the extra benefits.
"People like myself in the entertainment business, we don't have a job. It's not coming back anytime soon. And it's not like I just chose to not work. It's just gone," said Markham.
Federal legislators continue to discuss the program, though early indications from Republican leadership are that an extension would likely be less than the $600 weekly amount.
During a press conference Tuesday, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper encouraged state legislators to enhance statewide unemployment benefits.
"Right now, we're adding jobs back into our economy, and that's good. Folks are still struggling and many are still out of work. So far here in North Carolina, we have paid over 815,000 people more than $6.2 billion and it will hurt these people and our economy if their benefits are drastically reduced," said Cooper.
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