- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s employment agency announced Thursday it will cut 60 jobs and shutter seven of its 16 offices in the state to make up for a $4.1 million shortfall in federal funding.

The cuts come amid weekly unemployment insurance claims that have jumped to record levels due to layoffs of seasonal workers and those who are losing jobs in the oil patch because of a drop in drilling activity, Job Service Director Cheri Giesen said.

A somber Giesen, who had been meeting with staff members throughout the day Thursday, told reporters the cuts were “extremely difficult.”

The agency, which administers state unemployment benefits, pleaded unsuccessfully last month with state lawmakers for an emergency appropriation of $240,000 to maintain staffing through January, the agency’s busiest month. But lawmakers denied the request, fearing that using state money to make up for federal funding shortfalls would set a bad precedent. About 97 percent of the agency’s two-year, $65 million budget comes from the federal government.

Offices that will close are in Valley City, Harvey, Oakes, New Town, Beulah, Grafton and Rolla. Staffs at those locations were cut immediately, but employees in neighboring offices will visit those locations twice-monthly through June, Giesen said.

A total of 22 full-time staff members were laid off on Thursday, along with a dozen temporary workers, Giesen said. Another 26 vacant positons at the agency were eliminated.

The agency is left with 167 staff members, a number that has shrunk from 357 a decade ago. Giesen said the agency’s funding has decreased 7 percent during that time.

Despite North Dakota’s economic slowdown, the state still has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, at less than 3 percent, and scores more jobs than takers. The agency lists 13,500 unfilled jobs on its website.

In her plea for funding to lawmakers last month, Giesen said the number of weekly unemployment insurance claims was expected to jump from 700 to 2,500 this month due to seasonal layoffs and the downturn in oil drilling.

But she told reporters the agency had already tallied a record 2,845 unemployment claims in the first three days of this year.

To exceed the spending and employment limits set by the Legislature, North Dakota agencies must get permission from the state Emergency Commission and a separate legislative committee called the Budget Section. The state Emergency Commission, which includes Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, approved the funding last month.

Dalrymple said the spike in the agency’s workload was an emergency that could not have been anticipated, calling it “a very serious need.”

But the state Budget Section killed the request, voting 23-13 mostly along party lines, with only three Republicans endorsing the extra funding, and one Democrat voting against it.

Opponents argued that unemployment benefits would still be paid but only slower.

Giesen said the agency will continue to push online registration to ease the workload at the remaining sites throughout the state. She said those who file claims online can expect no delays in service.

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