PIERRE, S.D. — Not all of South Dakota’s unemployed have been as successful finding work opportunities in their communities as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in Indian Country.
Compared to any other demographic in the state, Native Americans are at a much higher risk of death or hospitalization due to COVID-19, according to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August.
That has led many tribes to enact stricter measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, such as the enforcement of curfews, lockdowns and shutdowns within reservations boundaries.
Gov. Kristi Noem has deflected the responsibility to enact pandemic health mandates and related closures to local municipal governments, stating in April that a one-size-fits-all solution would not work in South Dakota.
"I've been very clear about the fact that I don't think decisions for Sioux Falls are the same decisions that are correct and right for a town like Faith, South Dakota, or Lemmon, South Dakota," Noem has previously stated when asked about whether she would issue a statewide shutdown in April.
In August, Noem turned down a federal unemployment benefit that would put $300 in the pockets of those who qualified for unemployment assistance in the state.
Noem justified the decision not to accept the additional federal benefit, which was meant to provide relief to those unable to find work due to the pandemic, by noting how South Dakota’s economy has recovered by nearly 80% of job losses, according to a news release from Aug. 14.
“We have the third-best housing construction market in the country. And many, many businesses are looking to relocate to South Dakota because of the decisions we made during the pandemic,” Noem said in the release.
During a tribal relations committee meeting in Pierre Thursday, Sept. 24, state lawmakers lamented Noem’s decision to reject the additional unemployment payment from the federal government and questioned the decision making methodology behind it.
Sen. Troy Heinert, a Democrat from Mission and a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said there’s a major discrepancy between the unemployment rates reported by the state and federal agencies.
“The refusal of the extra $300 has been a mistake. I don’t know who is really advising the Governor on people who come from poverty,” Heinert said. “The people who received the $600 were spending that money on necessary items that they’ve never been able to purchase before, such as tires, beds and other items that they’ve been saving up for and this was a big help for them," Heinert said, referring to the $600 federal unemployment payments that were provided to those who qualified for unemployment assistance through the state.
The South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation issued the $600 benefit for claims made from March 29 to July 25.
Heinert said that $600 enabled South Dakota’s unemployed to make purchases that improved their overall quality of life.
“I just don’t see why we’d tank our own economy when we don’t have to. I think that issue should be brought up. In other parts of the state, are things open and jobs available? Sure. But in our area, that’s just not the case,” Heinert said.
“We were lacking jobs in the first place and now with COVID there have been other businesses and entities that are on hiring freezes. Our people don’t have another avenue to go out and get another job.”
Heinert wants to know how Noem would explain to someone from Norris, S.D., where they’re going to find a job.
Norris is a small unincorporated community in Mellette County with a population under 200.
“If you’re immunocompromised, where are you supposed to get a job?” he asked.
Rep. Shawn Bordeaux, a Democrat from Mission and member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said many people in his district simply don’t meet the criteria to be considered “unemployed."
Many residents in his district know what jobs are available and when, such as when work opportunities become available due to a highway construction project in the area.
“Our reservations have been shut down. I disagree that things have been hunky dory all over. They’ve been needing resources all the time. We bring in millions of dollars of federal resources, but we don’t know how to work that,” Bordeaux said.
Rep. Tamara St. John, a Republican from Sisseton, said the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe is one of the largest employers in her region and has continued to struggle due to COVID-19.
“We do have people that are laid off from their positions. Even as far as the schools, if you’re an employee with the school and you’re not prorated throughout the summer, some of those details need to be looked at better,” St. John said.
According to the department of labor and regulation’s state unemployment benefit statistics for the week ending Sept. 19, 504 initial weeklys claims for state unemployment were processed, which is an increase of 128 claims from the previous week.
A total of 6,897 continued claims were processed for the week ending Sept. 12, which is an increase of 224 from the previous week.