Gov. Tony Evers wants to boost unemployment benefits and remove barriers to qualify for them as part of the next state budget, but critics say the state shouldn’t sweeten jobless benefits at a time of record-low unemployment.
At stake is whether to overhaul the state’s safety net program of temporary financial support for people who lose their jobs involuntarily.
It would be the first time since 2014 that Wisconsin has increased the maximum rate for unemployment benefits — calculated as a percentage of what an employee earned before losing a job, up to as much as $370 a week. Evers wants to raise that maximum to $406 a week.
Evers administration officials said Wisconsin’s jobless benefit rate currently is less than most other states. A spokesman for the state Department of Workforce Development, which runs the program, said in a statement that even with Evers’ proposed increase, Wisconsin’s benefit rate would remain below the national average.
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The department “believes that individuals who lose work through no fault of their own shouldn’t have to worry about paying their bills,” spokesman Ben Jedd said.
Critics, meanwhile, fear the state could make it too enticing to claim jobless benefits.
“We don’t want to make it too comfortable to remain unemployed,” said Scott Manley, senior vice president of the state’s business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
Other changes Evers proposes include:
- Eliminating the state’s one-week waiting period to qualify for unemployment benefits. Proponents say missing a week’s pay can be devastating for many workers; critics say the waiting period is needed to vet jobless benefit applications and deter fraud.
- Eliminating a provision that makes people ineligible for benefits if fired for what the law defines as “substantial fault,” or failure to conform to a “reasonable” employer job policy. This standard has been the subject of recent court cases in which judges found it was improperly used to deny unemployment benefits to eligible applicants. Under Evers’ proposal, employees fired from their jobs for misconduct as defined by law would continue to be ineligible for benefits.
- Revising requirements for applicants to conduct work searches to qualify for benefits, including by giving the administration authority to define the types of job offers a person can reject and remain eligible for benefits.
- Eliminating requirements adopted in 2015 that applicants submit to drug testing to receive jobless benefits. The most sweeping of those requirements has not yet taken effect due to federal delays.
Manley is one of five management representatives on the state’s Unemployment Advisory Council, which in the past has often signed off on such changes, though it is not required. Manley said the council was not given an advance look at Evers’ proposed changes and did not endorse them.
Manley said the council, which also includes representatives from labor unions, has helped keep Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance program stable and mostly uncontroversial, but Evers’ proposal threatens that balance.
The advisory council is set to meet Thursday, and Evers’ budget is among the items on its agenda for discussion.
Rep. Mike Rohrkaste, R-Neenah, who works closely with workforce issues on the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said increasing jobless benefits is unnecessary at a time when Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is just 3 percent.
“We want people in the workforce now, particularly when jobs are plentiful,” Rohrkaste said. “Let’s push people that can be working to be working.”
Victor Forberger, a Madison attorney who specializes in employment law, said Evers’ proposal could help rein in a Department of Workforce Development that, in recent years, has been overzealous in attempting to deter fraudulent applications.
Forberger said it’s ridiculous to suggest the state makes it too easy to claim unemployment benefits. He said the state’s hurdles to benefit eligibility, including work-search requirements, hurt areas such as much of northern Wisconsin, where many people work blue-collar seasonal jobs and file for unemployment during the winter.
“We are forcing people to leave the state because we’re forcing them to search for jobs that don’t exist here,” Forberger said.