With the April 2023 election, an incredibly general, state-wide advisory ballot question about people on welfare needing to work passed by wide margins.
The Wisconsin legislature has taken that passage as a message to suddenly revamp and fine tune unemployment eligibility without actually fixing any of the problems with unemployment claim-filing in this state.
First some background.
It is vital to know that unemployment claim-filing is now in 2023 much, much different from what used to occur.
Year Claimants Paid Benefits Initial Claims 2007 332,982 638,548 2008 386,574 736,245 2009 566,353 1,125,127 2010 530,886 826,872 2011 445,538 722,018 2012 366,829 613,667 2013 312,325 550,050 2014 233,129 488,472 2015 197,070 423,858 2016 168,006 385,405 2017 144,727 305,813 2018 130,710 279,912 2019 129,888 287,043 2020 603,459 1,202,700 2021 295,249 529,476 2022 116,302 263,248
As this data reveals, claim-filing in Wisconsin had plummeted just before the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. In 2018, there was a record low of initial claims filed by individuals, and in 2019 there was a record low in the number of people who were paid unemployment benefits in Wisconsin.
Compare these numbers with what existed in 2007, a “normal” economic year when initial claims and weekly certifications were around 10 questions each and could be filed via a phone call. In that year, there were 638,548 initial claims, and 332,982 claimants were paid benefits that year (more than one out of every ten workers received unemployment benefits that year).
Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic reversed that trend. But, that reversal was incredibly short-lived. In 2022, new record lows for claimants paid benefits and for initial claims filed in the state were set. Initial claims in 2022 were roughly 89% of the number of initial claims filed in 2019, and paid claimants in 2022 were under 90% of 2019 levels. And, this trend of ever declining unemployment has continued into 2023. As of week 13 of 2023, initial claims are running at around 84% of 2022 levels. So, 2023 is likely going to set still another record low for initial claims and in benefits paid to claimants.
At the same time that unemployment claim-filing has declined and declined and then declined some more, the labor force in Wisconsin has been relatively stagnant and unchanging throughout this time period.
In 2007, there were 2,732,290 workers in Wisconsin, and in 2022 there were 2,754,514 workers, an increase of only 22,224 after 15 years.
So, unemployment has become less and less an issue for Wisconsin workers. The data right now indicates that the vast majority of claims are filed in the winter months, when scores of businesses like landscaping, road building, some construction, and others cannot operate because of winter conditions.
Into this picture of unemployment claim-filing comes the state legislature now with a bunch of sticks to beat over the head of the few people still seeking unemployment benefits. Here is a rundown of these proposals.
This bill provides new ways to disqualify claimants for misconduct for:
- any damage to employers’ property and records done unintentionally, by accident,
- possible violations of employers’ social media policies, and
- violations of employers’ absenteeism policies pursuant to Beres.
This expansion of Beres and accidental damage raise a serious risk of Wisconsin employers losing their FUTA tax exemption, because the misconduct penalty of lost wages in a benefit year can only be applied to intentional employee conduct.
As noted by the Commission in its briefing in Beres, this employer-determined misconduct for non-intentional absences (in both Beres and Stangel, the employees were absent because of illnesses over which they had no control) ran the risk of Wisconsin being found by the US Department of Labor to no longer be in compliance with federal requirements for unemployment. That lack of compliance could well lead to Wisconsin employers losing a tax credit and seeing their federal unemployment taxes jumping from a 0.5% to 7.0% tax rate — quite a jump.
As to the social media violation, this proposed change is basically incomprehensible. As written, this proposed statute makes any social media violation by an employee into misconduct. Accordingly, any employer discharge for a social media policy can now subject an employee to a misconduct disqualification. Hence, this provision is also likely to put state employers at risk of losing their FUTA tax exemption.
AB147 also mandates that employees with combined wage claims (also called interstate claims) who live outside of Wisconsin must register with the job center in their state. The problems with this proposed change are two-fold. First, the Department already requires claimants to do this registration. Second, this requirement ignores the fact that not all states and territories have job registration systems. Indeed, Minnesota, just next door, has no such requirement or system. As a result, Wisconsin is requiring claimants to do something that cannot actually be done in a state that lacks a job center like Wisconsin’s.
AB147 continues with still more nonsense. At present, the Department audits about 10% of all work searches. This proposal wants to increase the number of work searches being audited to 50%. As a result, it would either require the Department to quintuple its workforce or force current employees to do nothing but work search auditing.
Finally, in a pique over the PUA and MEUC benefits and supplemental PUC benefits that were made available during the pandemic, the legislature wants the Joint Committee on Finance to have a voice in whether similar funds and benefits become available in the state in the future. As evident here, the legislators simply fail to understand that Wisconsin has a partial wage formula that encourages people to work while claiming unemployment benefits. Indeed, raising the benefit levels and removing the current $500 cap would probably lead to more people working while collecting unemployment, not less. Apparently, basic economics is not needed for unemployment legislation.
- Requires the Department to allow employers to report people who do not show up for interviews, who declines a job interview, who miss an interview, who miss work, or who fail to return to a job after being recalled. The Department, however, already encourages employers to report this information. See, e.g., Refused Work, Work Available with Current Employer, and Report Unemployment Fraud. All of these employee actions would also lead to a loss of benefits, IF the person was claiming benefits at the time.
So, this portion of the bill changes nothing that it purports to do. Claimants who fail to attend a job interview for reasons that do not relate to illness or finding another job are likely to be found ineligible for benefits and perhaps even guilty of fraud/concealment. Indeed, this proposal actually makes claim-filing less onerous by allowing a person to have one such report as NOT counting against their eligibility (when right now, all such reports are investigated and ineligibility found if the claimant lacks the required legal justification).
Furthermore, this proposal ignores the fact that claimants are already doing four job searches a week in an economic climate where employers are desperate for finding employees to hire. Accordingly, employees may well find new jobs and skip interviews or offers to return to jobs after finding new jobs that pay more. And, as shown already, in 2022 and 2023, claim-filing is at record lows. In short, this proposal pretends that the labor supply is growing and that there are numerous unemployed people looking for jobs while claiming unemployment benefits, when the claim-filing data indicates the exact opposite.
- Require the Department to provide various employer information in its fraud reports and job search information to claimants.
This proposal adds: (a) some mandatory employer-reporting information to future Department Fraud Reports about missed job interviews and the like to the Department, and (b) a requirement to provide claimants with vital work search information that they now have to search for on their own.
This bill is a repeat of the re-employment bill from the previous session, and is still misguided, liberal, big government intervention into micro-managing people’s work lives.
This bill appears to be a Department-sponsored initiative and mandates things already being done by the Department or which the Department would like to do.
- Identity verification — mandates identity verification for claimants (currently based on Wisconsin-issued IDs).
- Mandatory unemployment training for employers that are free to attend and videos for claimants. What should be required here is that the Department again mail out printed copies of the claimants’ handbook rather than just a sheet of paper — a claim confirmation — with a URL for the handbook on it.
- Expanded call center hours whenever there is a declared state of emergency or call volume has increased by 300% from the previous level of a year ago. At present, numerous claimants are reporting to me that 15-20 phone calls a day are all leading to busy signals, so perhaps an increase of 50% should lead to expanded call center hours.
- Mandatory comparison with death records, new hire reporting, and prison records on a weekly basis. The Department already does this cross-match, though delayed by weeks or months.
What should be required is that DWD be mandated to do cross-matches with the quarterly unemployment tax reports the Department receives from employers in April, July, October, and January of each year for all weekly certifications filed during the previous four months (the Department’s current practice is to do a cross match on employer’s quarterly unemployment tax reports from nine to twelve months after the weekly certifications have been filed).
The Department should also be mandated to do cross-matches with employer’s payroll tax withholding reports submitted to the Department of Revenue on a monthly basis. In this way, any over-payments of unemployment benefits would be minimized to a month or less. Moreover, employers would no longer need to submit UCB-23 Wage Verification/Eligibility reports, as the Department would already have this information from the wage/tax withholding reports from the Department of Revenue.
- Unilateral transfer of administrative law judges from other state agencies to DWD for handling unemployment hearings.
Rather than hiring and training attorneys properly, the Department wants to force attorneys who handle environmental regulation cases, discrimination matters, or workers compensation cases into hearing and deciding unemployment cases. What the Department should be focused on is adequate training and hiring, not another kind of quick fix. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the skyrocketing number of denials and over-payments is largely because of inadequate information available to claimants. So, getting claimants educated with concrete, specific advice in place of legalisms so as to avoid all the denials in the first place is what is needed here.
This proposal seeks to limit the number of weeks of unemployment benefits available according to the state unemployment rate. An unemployment rate of 3.5% or less would mean only 14 possible weeks of unemployment benefits would be available. Only when the unemployment rate was higher than 9% would the full 26 weeks of benefits be available.
This proposal fundamentally misunderstands how unemployment works and why it exists. Unemployment benefits are not something that workers earn. Rather, unemployment is an insurance benefit for maintaining consumer demand for which employers pay a premium, based on their experience rating. As explicitly stated in Wis. Stat. § 108.01 (emphasis supplied):
(1) Unemployment in Wisconsin is recognized as an urgent public problem, gravely affecting the health, morals and welfare of the people of this state. The burdens resulting from irregular employment and reduced annual earnings fall directly on the unemployed worker and his or her family. The decreased and irregular purchasing power of wage earners in turn vitally affects the livelihood of farmers, merchants and manufacturers, results in a decreased demand for their products, and thus tends partially to paralyze the economic life of the entire state. In good times and in bad times unemployment is a heavy social cost, directly affecting many thousands of wage earners. Each employing unit in Wisconsin should pay at least a part of this social cost, connected with its own irregular operations, by financing benefits for its own unemployed workers. Each employer’s contribution rate should vary in accordance with its own unemployment costs, as shown by experience under this chapter. Whether or not a given employing unit can provide steadier work and wages for its own employees, it can reasonably be required to build up a limited reserve for unemployment, out of which benefits shall be paid to its eligible unemployed workers, as a matter of right, based on their respective wages and lengths of service.
(2) The economic burdens resulting from unemployment should not only be shared more fairly, but should also be decreased and prevented as far as possible. A sound system of unemployment reserves, contributions and benefits should induce and reward steady operations by each employer, since the employer is in a better position than any other agency to share in and to reduce the social costs of its own irregular employment. Employers and employees throughout the state should cooperate, in advisory committees under government supervision, to promote and encourage the steadiest possible employment. A more adequate system of free public employment offices should be provided, at the expense of employers, to place workers more efficiently and to shorten the periods between jobs. Education and retraining of workers during their unemployment should be encouraged. Governmental construction providing emergency relief through work and wages should be stimulated.
(3) A gradual and constructive solution of the unemployment problem along these lines has become an imperative public need.
In other words, unemployment is a lot like automobile insurance. The more accidents you have (i.e., more layoffs and claims), the higher your insurance premium. And, just because a driver may have been “accident-free” for some time does not mean the driver should then cut coverage — especially just before the driver hits a busload of school children on the highway. This proposal is essentially pretending that Wisconsin will forever in the future be “accident-free.”