What about the Workers?

Governor Burgum has ordered bars, restaurants, theaters, gyms, and other recreational venues to close starting at noon March 20th to April 6th. North Dakota now joins neighboring states who had already enacted the order. The difficult move is necessary to “flatten the curve” of covid-19. Yet, the decision and its roll out lead to more questions. Most importantly, what about the workers?

As Minnesota Governor Tim Walz ordered recreational areas closed, he also issued an order protecting the workers. The move allowed for leniency in MN unemployment insurance. It is the peace of mind needed for workers forced to stay away from their wages, salary, and tips.

What can we expect in North Dakota to protect worker wages? What is being done for those reliant on sub-minimum wage and tips? Unlike MN, ND allows servers and bartenders to be paid below minimum wage at $4.86. The idea is tips will make up for it. With tips likely gone, how can anyone pay the bills on that rate even if employers continue to cut checks?

How do we help small businesses bridge this economic gap in ND? Traffic and profits will come to a halt for many, not because of a poor business plan, but a global pandemic. Without dramatic measures and hopes the two-week order isn’t extended further, some may not make it. Here are a few ideas to press upon our elected leaders.

Governor Doug Burgum

Governor Burgum must consider an Executive Order for workers’ unemployment coverage. MN Governor Tim Walz has set an example of what can be done. At the very least he can gather the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce (GNDC) and Workforce Safety and Insurance (WSI) to come up with a plan to make sure workers are taken care of financially.

Burgum also chairs the very powerful Industrial Commission that oversees the Bank of North Dakota (BND). It is time he gets the Commission together to see what can be done through the Bank for small businesses and for those paying student loans. Low interest loans for businesses, suspending current payments without interest, or an entirely new program may be an option. The state-owned BND has recorded record profits year after year. Time to put it to work.

ND Legislature

The ND legislative leadership should consider a special session to pass a relief package. They saved four days from the last session in case something came up. It has. In these unique circumstances and guidance of social distancing, a session could prove difficult. It would likely be necessary to “suspend the rules” – something that has been abused in the ND legislature before – to allow debate and vote remotely for lawmakers. I’ll admit there are questions if this would be allowed and if it is technologically possible in ND.

Look no further than the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) situation in 2015-2016 for an example. I was a Senate member of the Legislative Management Committee at that time. I sat on a conference call to debate and vote on convening a special session to overcome the petty fight between House Majority Leader Al Carlson and the Senate to make sure public employees got paid. The current worker situation, both public and private, is many times larger than that circumstance.

Legacy Fund

Lastly, has the Legacy Fund entered the discussion for a relief package? It has nearly $7 BILLION sitting in the account and was created by ND voters. Legislators squabble about the fund’s purpose. Is it for “rainy days” or investing in our “legacy” for future generations. The reality is, if we don’t make necessary moves and investments to stop the flood before us collectively as a state, the legacy we desire to leave will be vastly more difficult to achieve. We don’t know when this rain will end.

Conclusion

Local government has stepped up to lead in this time across the country. Much like other moments in the last week, we can’t simply wait for the federal government to act. The necessary order taken to limit recreational gatherings leaves a lot of questions. Business as usual for many across the state will abruptly come to a standstill. We are uncertain when we will get back to “normal.” Because of that, we can’t sit back and expect the business as usual to take place in Bismarck. We must move to get answers and find solutions. We’re all in this together, but it will take every single one of us.

 

UPDATE (3/20/2020 4:58PM)

During his four o’clock press conference on March 20th, Governor Doug Burgum announced he signed an executive order to allow leniency for unemployment insurance. Thank you Governor for taking another appropriate step for North Dakota workers.