BISMARCK — Lawmakers in Washington are down to the wire this week to extend the federal government's pandemic unemployment program by its expiration date on Friday, July 31, leaving North Dakota agencies in limbo as they prepare to dramatically overhaul an already-complex payment system.
The latest version of the new unemployment insurance program was outlined in a trillion dollar proposal presented by Senate Republicans on Monday. The GOP plan would make significant cuts to the existing $600 per week assistance, temporarily reducing weekly payments to $200 as a short-term fix until states can roll out a more complicated system that would prorate payments to 70% of individuals' previous wages.
These moving parts and the deadline uncertainty in Washington have strained Job Service North Dakota, the state agency tasked with distributing the federal unemployment benefits, leaving it with little direction as it prepares to overhaul its payment system.
“It makes it extremely difficult,” said Darren Brostrom, director of the unemployment insurance program at Job Service. “Even if they had passed something last week, there still would be a delay in adjusting those payments to whatever they came up with.”
Brostrom said his department has been forced to prepare for the impending changes without actually knowing what they will require yet. "At this point we don’t have any extra insights as to what will ultimately happen," he said. "We’re running under the assumption that the program’s going to get extended in some format .... We're making the assumption that there's going to be a straight dollar amount. We don't know."
These deadlines expose the shortcomings in the state government's sometimes antiquated operating systems. Job Service runs on a mainframe computer that can make quick pivots next to impossible, and Brostrom said it could take his department up to three weeks just to switch weekly payments from $600 to the $200 proposed by the GOP. The 70% wage-replacement plan would make for an even more complicated transition, up to 12 weeks by Brostrom's estimation.
And massive overhauls at the 11th hour also put enormous pressure on state agencies to implement high-level changes under short time frames. When the federal government first unveiled its pandemic unemployment program, the rush of requests overwhelmed Job Service, forcing employees to their limit. Brostrom said his team was "working around the clock," with some staffers taking only four hours off in two or three days of work. "So we're preparing for that," he said.
In North Dakota, the program technically expired last week, the last full week of July, and no more payments will go out until the U.S. Congress pushes an extension through. Even then, it will take weeks for North Dakotans to start getting their federal checks again. "It's not like flipping a switch," said Sarah Arntson, a spokesperson for Job Service. "People should not expect those payments back immediately."
The unemployment insurance program has buoyed tens of thousands of out-of-work North Dakotans during the pandemic. And while the volume is down from the early stages of the pandemic, where Job Service received as many as 16,000 claims a week, the agency still fields more than a thousand claims a week.
But lawmakers in Washington tend to lean on high-pressure deadlines to push through large spending bills. “I never like taking us off the hook," said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. "I think the pressure mounts the more things that there are, but that’s sort of selfish when I’m employed and get my paycheck.”
Debates over the extension of the unemployment program have drawn ideological rifts in Washington, with Democrats hoping to hold payments at $600 and Republicans divided over whether to extend the program at all. Cramer has expressed a preference for smaller weekly payments in television interviews this week, arguing on Fox News that the country "cannot have an economy reopen if a large number of the workforce is getting paid more to not work"
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, took a similar stance in his press conference on Tuesday. “I think the $600 needs to come down if not go away. Because we know from talking to people in industry that they can’t get people to come back to work in North Dakota because they can make more (off unemployment),” he said. “Unemployment was meant to replace the income a person had, not give them a raise.”
But Burgum also stressed that he hopes representatives in Washington will vote through some version of the program before the end of the week. "Something will be better than nothing," he said.
The new program proposed by Senate Republicans would include $2 billion in funding for states to upgrade their unemployment processing systems, in addition to waivers that would provide flexibility for states unable to calculate the 70% wage replacement payments.
"I can imagine why it’s complicated," Cramer said. "It’s not hard for me to imagine how it would be difficult to do. But this has been a pretty extraordinary time.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.