Jobless claims soar as COVID-19 spreads
Jerrika Christianson performs during a show last month at the Pablo Center at the Confluence in Eau Claire. Christianson is among many statewide residents who are out of a job because efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus have many people at home and not attending public venues. (Photo by Julian Emerson )

Exponential growth in new claims since last week. Benefit hasn’t been raised by Republicans in 6 years.

Janessa Mullins figured she had good job security when she started working two years ago as a waitress in Superior. The 27-year-old had no problem getting hours, she said, and at one time worked two waitressing jobs. 

“The way I figured it, people always have to eat, right?” Mullins said. “So I thought I could work as a waitress as long as I wanted to.”

That sense of work security has vanished for Mullins and thousands of others across Wisconsin in recent days as recommendations by public health officials and orders by Gov. Tony Evers to limit public contact between people to curb the spread of COVID-19 have prompted many to stay home, dealing a direct financial hit to businesses, especially those in the services sector. 

As the number of confirmed cases continues to rise across Wisconsin, so does the number of people displaced from their jobs, many of whom are flooding the state’s unemployment office with a significant spike in claims filed. As of Friday 206 positive COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Wisconsin, with three deaths attributed to the virus.

Without income and facing an uncertain future, many of those businesses are laying off employees or reducing their hours, resulting in a surge of unemployment claims filed in Wisconsin in recent days, state officials said. 

Last week the average number of daily unemployment claims was about 700, according to state Department of Workforce Development figures.

But the number of people filing for unemployment as they suddenly find themselves out of work has climbed steadily in recent days. On Sunday, about 1,500 people filed claims, followed by 4,300 on Monday, 8,500 Tuesday, 15,000 on Wednesday and more than 16,000 on Thursday, state Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman said Friday. 

“We are certainly seeing a significant increase in the number of claims being filed,” Frostman said. “It is a sign of the many people being put out of work because of (COVID-19) concerns.”

His department is reallocating staff who have been cross trained in an effort to deal with the claims overload, Frostman said. Filing claims should be done online at the DWD site, he said, where the process is spelled out. He urged those who have lost their jobs to apply for unemployment benefits there. 

“We are trying to make the process of receiving benefits as user friendly as possible,” Frostman said.

Among those filing for unemployment is 24-year-old Justin Davis of Eau Claire. He temporarily lost his job as a server at Houligans Steak & Seafood restaurant when Evers on Tuesday ordered restaurants statewide closed to inside sales, and all taverns shut down. 

Davis filed his unemployment claim online that night and learned the next morning he will receive $200 weekly. That amount is “significantly less” than his weekly earnings at Houligan’s, he said, “but I will be able to get by on it.”

However, many others said they will struggle to pay bills on the amount unemployment compensation will provide. Weekly unemployment pay is based on a percentage of past income, and has a maximum weekly payment of $370 in Wisconsin. 

Maddi Herzfeld, who worked with Davis at Houligans, said she has not yet applied for unemployment benefits, in part because she also has income as a yoga instructor. In-person yoga sessions also have been suspended, she said, but sessions are available via social media video.

Herzfeld, 24, called the $200 per week unemployment compensation many displaced workers she knows will receive “insane.” That money is not just “fun money to spend,” she said, but “my main source of income and what I live off of. It’s offensive they think that is enough.” 

Eau Claire musician Jerrika Mighelle was similarly critical of unemployment compensation. She continues to work for her sister as a nanny but has lost income as a musician because of canceled gigs.

But her hours are likely to be reduced, she said, because her sister, an employee of the Eau Claire Library, now works from home because the library is closed to the public.

Mighelle, 38, has not yet filed for unemployment “but that is an option on the table if things continue to get worse,” she said. 

Frostman said he understands concerns that unemployment compensation isn’t enough for many people to get by. An attempt to boost that figure, last increased in 2014, failed as part of the 2019-2021 state budget after the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to adopt it. 

“We know the amount is not enough to meet the needs of many folks,” Frostman said. 

To alleviate stress on people filing for unemployment and on businesses, Evers recently relaxed the provision that those receiving benefits have to actively look for work and document it.

The governor has urged the Legislature to meet soon to do away with the one-week wait between approval of unemployment benefits and their actually receiving that money, something the governor cannot do with lawmakers’ approval

Chambers of commerce and other business groups that normally back Republicans are calling for swift action to help workers who suddenly find themselves without jobs.

Neither Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald nor Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has committed to taking up the unemployment waiting period for a vote, but they said they continue to meet with Evers to find a solution.

Frostman said he hopes that happens soon. The growing number of unemployment filings are evidence of the need. 

“I am optimistic the governor and legislative leadership can come to an agreement to do away with the one-week wait,” he said. “Folks need that assistance sooner than later.”