- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s employment agency is getting some extra federal funding to help process a spike in unemployment claims due to an oil drilling downturn in the state, officials said Monday.

Job Service North Dakota Director Cheri Giesen said the agency is getting $100,000 immediately and could get up to $500,000 depending on the agency’s workload the remainder of the year.

The money will be used to hire temporary staff and pay overtime for key staff members, she said.

Unemployment insurance claims have jumped to record levels in North Dakota due to layoffs of seasonal workers and those who are losing jobs in the oil patch because of a drop in activity, Giesen said.

The agency is processing about 1,000 claims weekly in March compared to about 850 for the same period a year ago, she said.

“There is nothing to indicate we are going to have a slowdown,” Giesen said.

The agency, which administers state unemployment benefits, pleaded unsuccessfully in December 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.

In January, the agency cut 60 jobs and shuttered seven of its 16 offices in the state due to federal budget shortfalls.

Offices that closed 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.

The offices will remain closed despite the additional money announced Monday, the agency said.

The agency is left with 167 staff members, down from 357 a decade ago.

Job Service said in a statement the extra money will allow the hiring of up to 10 temporary employees at its main office in Bismarck. Ideally the temporary workers will be those who had “worked for us in the past.”

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

Unemployment claims take two to three weeks to process, about the same as one year ago. But Giesen said claims “with issues,” such as those that have conflicts between employers and their former workers, are taking up to two months to process, or about twice that of a year ago.

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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