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Republicans reinstate work-search requirement for unemployed starting Sunday
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Republicans reinstate work-search requirement for unemployed starting Sunday

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The Legislature’s GOP-led rules committee voted Wednesday to eliminate the state’s emergency rule waiving work search requirements in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

The move came hours after Gov. Tony Evers hinted he would likely veto GOP-authored legislation aimed at eliminating the state’s participation in enhanced federal unemployment benefits, which provide individuals on unemployment an extra $300 per week.

The work search waiver first went into effect in March 2020 and was set to expire in July. Starting Sunday, unemployed people will again have to perform four work-search activities each week in order to obtain benefits.

“We need every able-bodied person to re-enter Wisconsin’s workforce to rebuild our economy,” committee co-chairman Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said in a statement following the vote, which was opposed by the committee’s Democratic members.

Bill Smith, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, spoke in favor of eliminating the waiver, which he said has made it more difficult for business owners to find willing employees.

“We believe suspension of the rule will encourage and improve labor participation and help address the current labor shortage,” Smith said. “Not solve it, but it is a policy that will help employers find workers.”

Committee member Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said the vote to reinstate work search requirements “is yet another example of Republicans abusing the rule-making process to make policy detrimental to their own constituents, and reveals what many who have been paying close attention have long known — Wisconsin Republicans want to make it as hard as possible for unemployed Wisconsinites to receive benefits.”

Evers hints at veto

During a news conference in Middleton, Evers said he hasn’t seen the specific bill announced Tuesday by Republican leaders, but said he has concerns about the proposal to strike enhanced benefits during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Evers also pushed back against comments by Republicans lawmakers and dozens of business organizations that those increased benefits have created a disincentive to work and exacerbate workforce shortage issues.

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“I don’t buy it,” Evers said. “We’re seeking a solution that this is not the answer to.”

“I would be less than honest if I didn’t say I am strongly considering vetoing it, but I haven’t decided,” the Democratic governor added.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said on Tuesday the bill could be in committee next week and taken up by the Legislature as early as June.

More than a dozen states, including Iowa, have eliminated enhanced unemployment benefits.

The GOP legislation follows a growing number of business organizations calling on Evers to end the state’s participation in enhanced federal unemployment benefits included in federal stimulus packages passed during the pandemic.

Enhanced unemployment benefits provide individuals $300 in weekly unemployment benefits in addition to the state’s maximum weekly benefit of $370. Enhanced benefits are slated to expire on Sept. 6.

On Monday, 50 chambers of commerce, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, sent a letter to Evers again asking that the state stop participating in the enhanced federal unemployment program, which the organizations said exacerbates workforce shortage challenges that were present in the state long before the pandemic.

Other organizations and some Democratic lawmakers have said there is no correlation between enhanced unemployment benefits and reduced participation in the workforce. Instead, officials have said the focus should be on eliminating barriers to employment by improving access to child care, expanding BadgerCare eligibility and increasing the minimum wage, which has remained at $7.25 an hour since 2009.

“I understand Republican talking points, but we all know that in order for us to have a robust economy, we need to have more people in the state of Wisconsin,” Evers said. “One of the ways we can draw people to Wisconsin is to make sure they have a high quality of life.”

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to about 14% in April 2020 due to the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns or restrictions on several industries. The rate began to slowly fall last year and, as of March, the unemployment rate was 3.8% — near the 3.5% rate in February 2020, according to the state Department of Workforce Development.

The state was down 129,000 non-farm jobs and 98,300 private-sector jobs when compared with last March.

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"We believe suspension of the rule will encourage and improve labor participation and help address the current labor shortage."

Bill Smith, National Federation of Independent Businesses

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