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Commission votes to give emergency funds to Job Service ND

BISMARCK - The state Emergency Commission narrowly granted a $240,000 request Tuesday so that Job Service North Dakota can maintain staffing levels through an expected spike in unemployment claims in January, but cuts are expected after that, the...

 

BISMARCK – The state Emergency Commission narrowly granted a $240,000 request Tuesday so that Job Service North Dakota can maintain staffing levels through an expected spike in unemployment claims in January, but cuts are expected after that, the agency’s director said.

Twenty employees already have taken voluntary buyouts this fall as the agency looks to cut costs to cover a $4.1 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Executive Director Cheri Geisen said.

Federal funds make up 97 percent of the agency’s roughly $65 million two-year budget, and funding has failed to keep pace with inflationary expenses and increased operational costs over the past decade, she said.

The $240,000 approved Tuesday -- which still needs a thumbs-up from the Legislature’s Budget Section on Dec. 16 -- would allow Job Service to keep its current staff of 207 regular and temporary workers on board through January as it transitions to a new automated system for claims services.

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Geisen said unemployment insurance claims are expected to increase from 700 per week to about 2,500 per week in January, mainly because of seasonal construction workers.

Without the additional state money, the agency will have to cut services, she said. Layoffs in the oil industry as a result of slumping crude oil prices have led to a backlog in unemployment insurance claims, forcing applicants to wait longer for checks to be issued, she said.

Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, one of four legislators on the six-member Emergency Commission, said he was nervous about using state money to supplant federal dollars.

“Once we start this, it’s really going down the wrong path,” he said.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, also questioned whether it would be more prudent to hang onto the entire $700,000 in the commission’s contingency fund in case falling oil tax revenues require budget cuts for state agencies.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he also was concerned about spending roughly a third of the contingency fund and using state dollars to make up for the federal shortfall. But he said he also knows people want the services Job Service provides, and he supported spending the funds, along with Secretary of State Al Jaeger and Gov. Jack Dalrymple, the commission’s chairman.

Dalrymple said the surge in workload could not be anticipated and does constitute an emergency.

“There’s not a lot we can do, but there’s this one thing we can do to help mitigate the situation, and I think it’s appropriate,” he said.

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Unless additional federal funds become available before February, Job Service plans to cut its full-time workforce by about 10 percent and lay off 20 temporary employees, Geisen said. Closing some of the agency’s 16 offices in North Dakota also “is definitely one of the options that we are going to have to consider,” she said.

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