FARGO — Unless Congress acts, starting the first week of next month jobless North Dakotans and Minnesotans won't receive an extra $600 in their weekly payments.

The additional money given to those forced out of work will still be in next week's checks, but could be lowered or eliminated in the regular payments that will be delivered Aug. 4.

The issue is becoming controversial as Congress debates another coronavirus relief package amid a worsening pandemic.

On one side, some businesses argue there are workers who aren't returning to their jobs or don't want to take other positions because they are making more money with the enhanced jobless benefit added to what they would have normally been given.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

However, those who received the benefit in recent weeks say it's been a lifeline as sometimes regular benefits are so low that they wouldn't be able to pay bills.

Jobless benefits were extended nationwide this spring to workers such as Gabe Rheault, a Fargo cosmetologist with a new baby, new home and a wife who also temporarily lost her job as the pandemic took hold.

He said the extra $600 was "extremely helpful and helped us make up for the missing pay" when the salon was forced to close.

Rheault said those in the service industry "put our money right back into the local economy by buying groceries and paying our mortgages."

When asked if he thought the extra $600 discouraged him from going back to work or was a windfall, he said he's "never heard of anyone in the service industry saying they have too much money."

"We just used the money to pay our bills and live our life," he said.

On the other hand, Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce board president and Spherion Staffing owner Jill Berg said when she first learned about the extra $600 in jobless benefits she feared it would mean they wouldn't be able to find people to go back to work.

"That's exactly what's happening," said the Fargo business executive whose company works on staffing and workplace issues in the region. "They're making more money than if they were working. It's a disincentive for people to work."

She's seeing people apply for jobs, but then they won't respond when her company tries to recruit workers for companies.

"Throwing money at people isn't the right decision," she said.

Berg said she knows of people on unemployment who were going ice fishing or biking instead of working.

She said she feels for people on the lower end of the pay scale, but that jobless benefits were meant as "a safety net." Even those who work in the ailing bar and restaurant industry, with many ordered to be limited in capacity or closed in the past weeks, could find other temporary jobs, she said.

As of last month, the state had about 11,399 job openings, an increase of 13.4% from the prior month but down 16.4% from the same month one year ago, according to Job Service North Dakota.

The national debate over extending or lowering extra jobless benefits comes as unemployment numbers are falling locally, where the jobless rate as of last month was 6.3% with about 28,000 residents collecting benefits in North Dakota. Minnesota also saw a declining number with a jobless rate of 8.6% last month with about 267,500 people receiving payments.

Last June, the North Dakota jobless rate was 2.6%, while Minnesota's was 3.2%.

Darren Brostrum, director of the unemployment insurance division for Job Service North Dakota, said the number of jobless residents is down significantly since it peaked.

During the peak week of March 29, there were about 16,000 claims filed. The number has dropped to about 1,500 to 1,750 new claims each week.

"In a normal year, we would average about 265 claims per week at this time," he said.

North Dakota and Minnesota's numbers are well below the national rate of 11.1%, but for those without a job, the loss of the extra money can be a major concern.

In a national survey of 2,000 residents by The Ascent, a personal finance group that helps people with financial health matters, the firm found that there's been a "staggering loss of income," said Dann Albright, a research analyst for the Virginia company.

"It's being compounded by the impending expiration of extra federal unemployment benefits," he said in an email Wednesday. "It's especially alarming that almost a third of Americans say they can't last a month without the extra $600 that expires at the end of July.

"Almost a quarter of our respondents reported making an early withdrawal from their retirement accounts, which can be a risky financial move," Albright said. "Many consumers may be better off opening a credit card with a 0% introductory APR offer — that way, they can keep their retirement savings safe and avoid paying credit card interest on things like bills and necessities.

"And we strongly encourage everyone to seek help from their credit card issuers, mortgage providers, banks, utilities, and anyone else who might be able to offer a bit of relief during these difficult financial times," he said.

As for what Congress may do, Brostrom said his department had "no specific insights."

However, he said, Congress has been asking many questions of state unemployment officials about various options they are discussing.

"Their primary questions have related to how long the computer programming will take to accommodate any change they ultimately make. They have requested information on changing dollar amounts from the $600 figure to various income replacement options that would result in each individual receiving a different amount," Brostrom said..

"Our hope is that no matter what Congress does, that it be as simple and easy to understand as possible to prevent delays in payments to individuals that will come as a result of programming changes. This has been expressed by each state," he said.

Meanwhile, Job Service North Dakota offices around the state will reopen to in-person visits this coming Monday, July 27, as Gov. Doug Burgum has signed an executive order restoring the work registration and job search requirements starting that same day for individuals seeking or planning to keep their regular unemployment benefits.

The requirements were suspended March 13 in order to expand unemployment eligibility amid business closures during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The suspension of registration and work search requirements was always meant to be temporary," said Burgum in a statement earlier this month. "Reintroduction of these requirements will assist employees and employers to return to work and continue a North Dakota Smart Restart. Job Service North Dakota will continue working with individuals receiving benefits on a case-by-case basis to make sure they receive the assistance they need and that we are protecting the lives and livelihoods of all.”