Job Service managing despite less funding and layoffs
BISMARCK -- Job Service North Dakota officials say they've been able to successfully weather a recent spike in unemployment insurance claims amidst a sharp round of budget cuts and are looking at ways to improve long-term operations.
BISMARCK -- Job Service North Dakota officials say they’ve been able to successfully weather a recent spike in unemployment insurance claims amidst a sharp round of budget cuts and are looking at ways to improve long-term operations.
Lawmakers late last year decided not to provide the department with state dollars to help soften the blow temporarily, which they said would have set a precedent by providing state dollars to a federally-funded agency. They say in hindsight they’ve been proven right as the workload has settled down at the department.
Job Service North Dakota Executive Director Cheri Giesen said the agency has been able to get by despite a rough fiscal and staffing situation.
“We did the best with what we have,” Giesen said.
Recently Job Service reported that in January, traditionally the peak month for unemployment insurance claims, it processed about 1,624 claims per week. That number has since declined to just over 700 claims per week.
The state’s unemployment rate for March was 3.9 percent, up 0.2 percent from the previous month and 0.5 percent from the same time one year ago. The department’s number of job listings has increased by nearly 1,700 since January, to about 15,000.
In December the Budget Section rejected a $240,000 request in contingency dollars through the North Dakota Emergency Commission to keep staff on through January set to be laid off. The department was also working to complete a transition to an automated system at the time.
House Majority Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said lawmakers’ decision wasn’t a swipe at the agency.
“It’s just a matter of setting a precedent,” Carlson said. “We just could not set the precedent to start funding federal employees. You’re opening a thousand doors that can’t be closed again.”
Carlson said in hindsight the Budget Section made the right choice, adding that Job Service has done a good job in managing its shortfall and dealing with the spike in claims.
Giesen said the agency went into the process of asking for the state dollars knowing the odds were long, adding that there’s no hard feelings over the decision.
“We have to understand the position they’re in, and this is a federal program,” Giesen said.
Layoffs and the shuttering of nearly half of its regional offices were announced in January. A total of 60 positions across the state were cut. A total of 22 full-time staff were laid off, along with 12 temporary staff and 26 vacant positions being eliminated. The 22 full-time staff received one month’s severance and two months of healthcare coverage. Seven of the state’s 16 regional offices are also closing - Valley City, Harvey, Oakes, New Town, Beulah, Grafton and Rolla.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, voted for the state dollars but understood the reasoning to oppose it.
“They had a very heavy workload for a short period of time. They’ve caught up,” Wardner said.
In March the U.S. Department of Labor provided Job Service North Dakota $100,000 for temporary staff to handle the increased workload. Overtime hours were also made available for some members of existing staff, which Giesen said was a big help.
“We’ll have to look at (long-term) strategies,” Giesen said of budgeting in future years. She didn’t provide details.
Wardner said services may have been impacted in the areas near communities where facilities are closing but there hasn’t been an impact in the Dickinson area.
“There’s still jobs out there and people - lots of people - currently looking for work,” Wardner said.
The cuts closed a roughly $4.1 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year which began Oct. 1. The agency is 97 percent funded by federal dollars, which have remained flat or in decline for the past decade.
Staff will transition to a regional delivery system at the end of June.
Job Service North Dakota’s 2015-17 budget is approximately $65 million. Not counting inflation, funding has decreased about 7 percent since 2005. The cuts brought the agency’s staff level down to just under 170.
The layoffs were the second round by Job Service in recent months: twenty staff were voluntarily bought out last fall along with cuts to travel and other cost-cutting measures.