Head of N.C. unemployment office replaced by ex-legislator

In this file photo, former State Rep. Pryor Gibson, D-Anson, speaks on the House floor in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper replaced the head of the state unemployment benefits office on Wednesday with a former legislator as the agency struggles to address an unprecedented onslaught of pandemic-related job loss claims.

Cooper’s Commerce Department announced that Pryor Gibson, who has recently operated a department program to help revive small-town economies, is the new assistant director overseeing the Division of Employment Security.

The governor directed the department “to take actions necessary to address this unprecedented crisis and get more unemployment benefits faster to people who need help now,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said.

Out of the job is Lockhart Taylor, a career agency employee who apologized last week during a state Senate hearing to citizens who testified about their problems obtaining benefits. Applicants have complained about getting knocked off the online filing system and waiting for hours on the phone.

“Pryor Gibson is a forceful presence to lead (the division) during this unprecedented economic stress,” Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland said. Taylor will be reassigned to another department role, the agency’s release said.

Republican senators praised Taylor’s sincerity and work to rapidly expand the system as 955,000 people have applied for benefits since the pandemic. Taylor had said there have been more claims filed since mid-March than in the previous six years. More than $2.7 billion in federal and state benefits have been distributed to 600,000 displaced workers. Now nearly 2,600 state employees or contract workers are handling claims.

The GOP lawmakers said it’s Cooper who should take the blame for not giving Taylor’s office more time to prepare for the flood of applications before issuing executive orders that shuttered businesses.

Gibson is an Anson County Democrat who was known in the General Assembly for taking on messy issues that other legislators preferred not to handle, such as the tapestry of state and local alcoholic beverage laws. He later served as Gov. Beverly Perdue’s top legislative lobbyist when Republicans took over the House and Senate in 2011. Cooper named Gibson to run his “Hometown Strong” initiative for rural areas.