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Saturday June 12th

Laid off employees struggle to apply for unemployment benefits

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Buy Photos Jason Gilbert, general manager of Carolina Brewery's Chapel Hill location, said they laid off their staff when restaurants were ordered to close dine-in services in mid-March. Gilbert said Carolina Brewery is now running with minimal staff for takeout orders during the four hours a day they are open, and customers can come to their restaurant and receive orders out of the front window.

As Gov. Roy Cooper extends the state's stay-at-home order, some Chapel Hill restaurants are grappling with having to lay off their staff and finding new ways to run their businesses while maintaining social distancing. 

Top of the Hill is one of those businesses, having furloughed 150 of its employees, said Scott Maitland, founder and proprietor of Top of the Hill.

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“Hopefully we will survive all of this,” he said.

Maitland said some TOPO employees who have been furloughed because of the pandemic have struggled to get their unemployment claims through the N.C. Department of Commerce Division of Employment Security website.

According to the NCDES website, the fastest way to file a new claim is to file online, but people can also file over the phone by calling 888-737-0259. 

Aaron Caracci, head brewer at TOPO, said his process to start receiving unemployment benefits started in mid-March when Cooper announced that restaurants and bars would have to close their dine-in services. 

Caracci said getting the application through the online system took some time.

“The server was just bombarded,” he said. “There were so many people doing the same thing that I was doing.”

He said for a while, he had to get on the website very early in the morning or very late at night in order to get into the system successfully. 

“Upfront, it was pretty frustrating," he said. "Because people rely on the money and it was taking a while for the application to be submitted." 

Caracci said he thinks he was the first employee of Top of the Hill to successfully submit his unemployment application.

“Part of the application you had to watch a video," Caracci said. "I want to say the first time I had to, it kept kicking me back, and showing that I never watched the video. So, I had to watch this nine-minute-long video like 12 times.”

He then started helping his coworkers get through the process and troubleshoot issues they had because he had similar issues at first. 

“Initially the system was broken, the server was slow," Caracci said. "Everybody was trying to do something that, really they couldn’t, because the state wasn’t prepared for it. It still has some glitches, but it’s a lot easier now to navigate, and you can actually get through, regardless of the time of day.”

Maitland said people just need to be patient.

“Hopefully everybody will work their way through," he said.

Jason Gilbert, general manager of Carolina Brewery's Chapel Hill location, said they laid off their staff when restaurants were ordered to close dine-in services in mid-March. 

He said when they had to make layoffs, Carolina Brewery set up laptops at their restaurant and walked the staff through the process of applying for unemployment benefits. 

“We just felt that it would be best if we could help walk them through it,” he said.

Gilbert said some of their staff is Spanish-speaking, so the chef, who is bilingual, helped those staff members through the process as well. Gilbert said a lot of his staff has started receiving benefits in the last couple of weeks, and the process has gone relatively well. 

The N.C. Division of Employment Security did not respond to a request for comment.

Cooper's extending of the stay-at-home order means dine-in services at restaurants won't be able to resume until at least May 8. Maitland said customers are still able to buy meals, beer, liquor and hand sanitizer from TOPO at its distillery location through online ordering and curbside pickup. He said selling those items is what is helping to keep the business alive.

Gilbert said Carolina Brewery is now running with minimal staff for takeout orders during the four hours a day they are open, and customers can come to their restaurant and receive orders out of the front window. 

“I’m personally a believer in, you know, rather safe than sorry,” Gilbert said. “I think that the fact that there is a plan and there are phases and they’re unveiling this entire thing is, I think a really great bright light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of people.”

@mereditharadfor

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com 

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