(Image by Shutterstock)
(Image by Shutterstock)

‘Safer at Home’ vital to halt virus, but millions of Americans waiting on Congress and Legislature for support

More than 101,000 Wisconsin workers have filed for unemployment benefits from March 15 through Monday, according to publicly available data from the state Department of Workforce Development.

That number represents a more than 1,200 increase over the same nine-day span last year, when only 7,591 workers filed claims, according to DWD data. The increase illustrates how businesses have been laying off workers in droves due to mandatory changes aimed at fighting the spread of coronavirus.

Gov. Tony Evers issued a health-emergency declaration on March 12, and on March 17 went further, ordering bars and restaurants to halt dine-in service indefinitely. And that was only the beginning of the spike. Evers issued a “Safer at Home” order on Tuesday, which will shut down nonessential businesses for a month to combat the spread of coronavirus.

The Department of Health Services on Tuesday confirmed 457 positive COVID-19 cases and five deaths in Wisconsin. About 8,200 tests have come back negative. 

In a call with reporters Tuesday, DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm said public health officials estimated that had the “Safer at Home” order had not been issued, roughly 22,000 people in Wisconsin would have contracted the virus and between 440 and 1,5000 people would have died from it by April 8.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state’s top infectious disease expert, likened social distancing and stay-at-home orders to side effects from intensive chemotherapy. He said the measures are necessary to slow the virus’ spread.

A Federal Reserve official predicted this week that national unemployment could reach as high as 30 percent in the coming months, triple the rate following the late-2000s recession and even exceeding the Great Depression’s peak of 25 percent.

Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman said last week his department is reallocating staff who have been cross trained in an effort to deal with the claims overload. Filing claims should be done online at the DWD site, he said, where the process is spelled out. 

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

Many will struggle to pay bills on the amount that 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. 

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.

During the pandemic, Evers has waived the requirement for unemployment recipients to apply for work. He has urged the Legislature to reconvene to also waive the one-week waiting period before laid off workers can apply, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have yet to call sessions.

Congress, meanwhile, has spent days debating a massive, $2 trillion stimulus package. One element widely agreed upon is the sending of checks of at least $1,000 to most, if not all, American adults. Other provisions related to business bailouts and loans and employee protection have proven to be stickier, but negotiators from both parties said Tuesday afternoon they expect to reach agreement soon.