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Gray areas remain in North Dakota’s unemployment system

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Two and a half months after the coronavirus landed in North Dakota, business is moving closer and closer to a new normal.

But, as restaurants and other hospitality businesses find ways to reopen, employees and employers alike are still struggling with the unemployment system.

After speaking with the President of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, and the Executive Director of Job Service, it’s clear that the only given for keeping unemployment benefits when your workplace opens back up is if you have to watch children at home.

“Because that’s covered by the pandemic unemployment insurance,” explained AFL-CIO President Landis Larson.

If the employer isn’t holding up safety standards, Larson said, “There is no OSHA standard for infectious diseases like this. So when they say, ‘Call OSHA’, OSHA doesn’t really have any good teeth to bite with.”

And then, even if an employer is following CDC guidelines, what if an employee is at high risk for the coronavirus and the job involves serving people all day?

Larson responded, “That’s up in the air. There’s no black or white for that as far as I know.”

When asked if he thinks there should be a clear standard, Larson said, “I would think so.”

We sat down with the Job Service Director, Bryan Klipfel, to get some clear answers.

“There are always exceptions and you have to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” he shared.

“In my letter to him (my email), I stressed what kind of anxiety it must be like to either, you know, to be in that group and have to go back to work, or to stay home and feel safe, but not have any income,” Larson said, referring to an email he sent to Klipfel.

We asked the Job Service Interim Director, “Say somebody is in that situation, should they be calling Job Service? How would they start that case-by-case handling of the situation?”

He responded, “Well, usually what happens is the employer will let us know that they asked an employee to come back to work and they haven’t; they refuse to come back to work. So then we have to adjudicate the claim, so you have to get the side of the business and then you have to get the side of the employee, and our adjudicator makes the decision.”

The co-owner of Bismarck restaurants MacKenzie River Grill and Ale Works, Robin Bopp says she spends hours a day on unemployment claims. She says she and her husband are down to less than half of their pre-pandemic staff, due to people refusing to come back to work.

“It’s really hurt us. We have some staff that have chosen not to come back to work because they’re making more on unemployment than they were for hours working,” Bopp explained.

She says employers are in an equally tough spot.

“…just disappear: they don’t answer their phones, they don’t answer our scheduling,” she added.

Bopp says she’s been letting Job Service know when this is happening.

“And that’s not the way it’s set up. These benefits: the unemployment plus that 600 extra a week was to really help people who could not go back to work,” Klipfel said.

Ultimately both of Bopp’s restaurants, like many others, are doing everything they can to keep the work environment safe and clean.

The rest is out of the employer’s control.

If you are put at a high risk by going back to work, Klipfel says that’s what the pandemic unemployment insurance was created for, and to call Job Service. However, you will no longer qualify for the state’s regular unemployment.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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