State Democrats have proposed a package of bills aimed at expanding Wisconsinites’ eligibility for unemployment benefits to address the state’s persistent backlog of claims due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
GOP leaders quickly rebuked the package of eight bills, which comes amid mounting criticism from state Republicans directed at the Department of Workforce Development and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers over the state’s ongoing struggles to manage the onslaught of unemployment claims caused by widespread closures and layoffs during the pandemic.
Also on Thursday, DWD reported the state’s unemployment rate fell from 12.1% in May to 8.5% last month.
Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said many of the bills — including one he co-authored to eliminate the concept of substantial fault as a disqualifying factor for benefits — would rollback changes to state unemployment laws enacted under Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
“I would say there are a number of different tripwires on the obstacle course of people trying to get unemployment insurance,” Larson said. “Each bill pulls up a number of tripwires along the way.”
The package unveiled Thursday would allow Social Security disability recipients to also receive unemployment benefits, provide benefits to participants of extended occupational training programs, temporarily suspend the state’s $500 wage threshold for unemployment eligibility and expand the Department of Workforce Development’s authority to administer rules.
“This package is basically Democrats’ attempt to divert attention away from Governor Evers’ abysmal record of not processing UI claims correctly or in a timely fashion,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement. “Democrats are trying to reinstate failed policies when their elimination contributed to record low unemployment and prosperity while eliminating fraud. Democrats simply want to make it easier to stay on unemployment and cheat the system.”
Other proposed bills would lower the work search requirement from four searches per week to two and eliminate the state requirement that claimants must wait one week before receiving unemployment benefits.
“These bills can help improve and accelerate the process for people who need help now,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said in a statement. “A quicker turnaround on an unemployment claim could literally be the difference between someone being evicted or staying in their home. State government must take every decisive action possible to eliminate unnecessary hurdles that have slowed down the process for people applying for unemployment insurance.”
Earlier this week, DWD reported the department had received more than 4.2 million weekly unemployment claims since March 15. Of those, 75% have been paid and another almost 125 have been denied. About 13% of weekly claims, including claims awaiting wage verification and adjudication, were being processed.
“DWD is working diligently to serve the people of Wisconsin,” DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman said in a statement. “Since March 15, 2020, DWD has received over 4 million weekly claims. To put this in perspective, the Department received approximately 1.6 million claims in all of 2019.”
The Evers administration on Thursday announced an additional 100 state employees were being reassigned to help process unemployment claims.
Despite efforts by DWD to boost staffing, add call centers and expand help center hours to manage the influx of claims, criticism over delays has grown among Republican lawmakers.
Last week, Assembly Republicans called on Evers to use some of the state’s remaining federal coronavirus relief dollars to provide immediate relief to the thousands of Wisconsinites waiting for state unemployment benefits.
Republicans said Evers should create a 100% forgivable bridge loan program using a portion of the state’s more than $280 million in remaining federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds. Doing so would bypass DWD’s time-consuming adjudication process, which department officials have said is necessary to prevent unemployment fraud and ensure that funds are distributed only to those eligible.
As of June 27, about 141,000 Wisconsinites were awaiting the DWD’s adjudication process. Department officials have said skyrocketing unemployment claims have placed considerable strain on the department’s low staff numbers and the state’s outdated unemployment system.
“The Evers’ administration’s response to this unemployment crisis has been nothing short of a dumpster fire,” Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said in a statement. “The tired proposals trotted out today would only serve to expand eligibility to an already strained system and fuel the flames of the problem at hand.”
Evers this week said he viewed the GOP proposal for bridge loans as “somewhat of a political stunt.”
“First of all, it takes human beings and an organization in order to physically do that and second of all it’s risky just to send money out with no understanding of the adjudication process that DWD does,” Evers said on Tuesday.
The latest data from DWD shows Wisconsin’s unemployment rate continues to drop from the 13.6% rate recorded in April, when the state’s stay-at-home order was in effect.
DWD reports the state added 104,600 total non-farm and 99,300 private-sector jobs in June.
DWD chief economist Dennis Winters said some of the industries to see the biggest gains include leisure and hospitality, but added those sectors also were hardest hit this spring as businesses closed down statewide to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Leisure and hospitality employment is still down 30% from last year, while entertainment is down almost 46%.
“You’ve seen some good pop-backs in the industries that were devastated the most,” Winters said. “They still have a ways to come.”
Winters said part of the reason Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has fallen below the nation’s 11.1% is due to the state’s concentration of industries like manufacturing, which were not as affected by coronavirus and the subsequent shutdown.