SUBSCRIBE NOW Just 99¢ for your first month



Our view: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum was right to end federal 'top-off' unemployment program

Look around – businesses are being forced to reduce hours or close on certain days because they cannot find workers.

Herald pull quote, 5/19/21
We are part of The Trust Project.

Gov. Doug Burgum’s decision last week to end North Dakota’s participation in the federal government’s pandemic unemployment assistance program came with controversy.

But listen to the governor’s point of view.

“North Dakota is among the highest states in what we pay in unemployment already. Throw $600 or $300 on top of that, and it’s difficult for employers to compete,” Burgum said during a meeting with the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial board.

Burgum went on, using example numbers. He said the state benefit per week can be somewhere north of $400 or $500. “Throw $600 (in federal funds) on top of that” and it’s quite a benefit “to stay home,” he said.

The governor calls the federal dollars a “top-off” program, since they’re added on top of the state’s unemployment rate. He and others believe those top-off funds are adding to hiring woes being seen throughout North Dakota as the state emerges from the pandemic. The governor’s numbers, while true, tend to be at the high end of unemployment benefits. Importantly, the $600 benefit was trimmed to $300 last year.


Still, it’s right to end the program – technically, it ends June 19 – even as some have claimed the decision is mean-spirited during a difficult time. The state Democratic Party said the move essentially tells the working class that they are “livestock to be ushered back to historically underpaying, underprotected minimum-wage jobs.”

“What is not a part of our North Dakota values is kicking people when they are down and treating them viciously, instead of with unmatched kindness,” Democratic Party Chairman Patrick Hart said in a statement.

Yes, for some it will create difficulty, among them the many parents who are finding it difficult to secure child care amid the pandemic.

But, according to the governor’s office, some 8,300 people are claiming benefits via the program, including some who live out of state. Meanwhile, the state has more than 16,000 online job openings, up some 50% from a year ago. Anecdotally, the number of open jobs is probably more than that and, Burgum says, it’s only going to get worse as more of the state’s older residents migrate out of the workforce.

Other states also are moving away from the federal top-off program, including Montana, Arkansas and Alabama.

Arik Spencer, CEO of the Great North Dakota Chamber, calls it a “straightforward solution to a growing workforce problem.”

In a statement included in the governor’s announcement last week, Spencer said it’s “problematic” when government interferes with the marketplace and that the short-term financial assistance has served its purpose. He’s right on both counts.

“Let’s get the workforce back in a position to help our state and economy recover,” Spencer said.


Incentivising any segment of the workforce to remain idle while businesses seek employees will only hurt North Dakota in the long run. Look around – businesses are being forced to reduce hours or close on certain days because they cannot find workers. Soon, they could be out of business, eroding the state’s economy.

The time was right for Burgum’s decision on the federal top-off program, no matter the backlash that has arisen from it.

Related Topics: OUR VIEW
What to read next
In a report this week in the Grand Forks Herald, the owner of the Drayton, North Dakota, Valley News & Views said that if a buyer isn’t found by next month, the weekly publication will close so she can focus on her health.
Whereas longtime elected officials do gain power with their longevity, they also gain valuable experience that cannot be quickly absorbed by newcomers.