North Dakota to extend pandemic unemployment checks, but more limited than last time
Gov. Doug Burgum said the state is opting into the new, smaller federal assistance program, and will distribute a shorter stint of $300 weekly payments to North Dakotans unemployed as a result of the pandemic.
BISMARCK — North Dakota plans to resume providing federal pandemic unemployment checks following a period of dormancy after the assistance program expired last month.
Announcing the decision in a press conference Wednesday, Aug. 26, Gov. Doug Burgum said North Dakota has submitted its application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to sign onto the new program, officially known as the Lost Wages Assistance Program, joining some 30 states that have already opted in.
The Lost Wages Assistance Program is designed to distribute $400 weekly checks and is only expected to cover three weeks of payments, a significantly limited option compared to the previous $600 weekly payment program. In North Dakota, this weekly boost will be even smaller, amounting to just $300 per week, since the state is counting preexisting unemployment payments toward the federal government's total sum.
"We didn't take this decision lightly. There's many factors to balance," Burgum said, noting that North Dakota already has one of the highest paying state unemployment programs in the country. "There (are) a number of programming changes that will have to be made, but we anticipate that we'll get quick approval from the White House."
The Lost Wages Assistance Program, a $44 billion aid program, was pushed through in an executive order by President Donald Trump, a week after Congress failed to extend the original program in any form before its expiration on July 31.
The federal government originally asked states to pony up a quarter of the money to make the $400 payments, but an outcry from cash-strapped states prompted the Department of Labor to amend their rules, allowing states to count existing benefits payments toward the pandemic payments.
Only residents who are unemployed specifically as a result of the pandemic are eligible for Lost Wages Assistance, and the governor's office specified that only those whose weekly statement benefits exceed $100 will qualify for the new federal checks.
As of Monday, some 30 states had been admitted to the new program, while a small handful have declined the program outright. South Dakota turned down the federal handout earlier this month. "South Dakota's economy, having never been shut down, has recovered nearly 80% of our job losses," Gov. Kristi Noem said at the time. "South Dakota is open for business — that applies to our business owners and their employees."
Qualifying North Dakotans should not expect these payments to resume immediately. Rolling onto the new program requires more than a simple flip of the switch at Job Service North Dakota, the state's unemployment office, and Burgum noted several "significant hurdles" that the transition presents to the agency's dated mainframe computer system.
Bryan Klipfel, director of Job Service, said these retroactive payments likely will not go out until early or mid-September, noting that the office will have to reprogram its computer system to fit the new amount, in addition to programming the system to withdraw money from a separate bank account from the previous program.
"It's done pretty well for all of the claims we've had over the last five months, but every time you change a benefit you have to reprogram the system, and it takes a lot of time and work to do that," Klipfel said.
While Burgum opted into the new program, he reiterated criticisms of the previous $600 checks at his press conference, arguing that the larger unemployment payments were a disincentive for North Dakotans to return to work.
"This is a very different thing," Burgum said of the Lost Wages Assistance Program. "We'll see what Congress comes up with next, but this is a way for us to help people who, on no fault of their own, have lost their job."
Job Service estimates that about 17,600 North Dakotans will qualify for the new unemployment program, a little more than 40% of current unemployment claimants in the state. The program is expected to total $14.7 million in payments, compared to more than $400 million paid out in the previous program.
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