(Photo provided)
(Photo provided)

Proposal comes as unemployment for June drops to 8.5 percent and backlog hovers around 141,000 unemployment claims.

Legislative Democrats introduced a series of bills Thursday with the intent to expedite unemployment insurance claims and whittle down the backlog of roughly 141,000 claims still waiting to be sent to unemployed Wisconsinites. 

The news comes as the state’s unemployment rate for June dropped to 8.5 percent Thursday, down from the previous month of roughly 12 percent and below the national average of about 11 percent.

Despite the backlog and high unemployment rate, lawmakers have been unable since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the state in March to coalesce around any legislative action to provide state-based financial relief for residents. 

The package of bills introduced by Democrats Thursday would largely roll back changes to the state’s unemployment insurance requirements put in place by Republicans, meaning the odds the GOP-controlled Legislature will sign on in support appears slim. 

“These bills will remove eligibility restrictions, make it easier to apply for unemployment insurance, and remove barriers to allow the Department of Workforce Development to process unemployment claims faster,” said Rep. Robyn Vining, D-Wauwatosa, a co-sponsor of the bills. “We need to remove the unnecessary barriers to unemployment assistance so Wisconsinites can access these resources as quickly as possible.”

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, said in a statement the legislation would eliminate the hurdles Wisconsin residents are facing in receiving benefits.

She said the policies put in place during the eight years Republicans controlled all branches of government from 2010 to 2018 are largely to blame for the current barriers applicants face when applying for and receiving benefits. 

“This pandemic is revealing that the challenges within the Wisconsin unemployment system are the direct result of the Walker administration’s efforts to make collecting unemployment benefits harder,” Bewley said. “In Madison or Milwaukee, or closer to my home in Ashland or Rice Lake, people are suffering because the Republicans who control the legislature aren’t doing anything. Democrats want to make meaningful, comprehensive, and corrective action to help Wisconsin residents.”

Last week, Assembly Republicans leaders suggested the governor use a portion of the remaining federal CARES Act funding to immediately provide assistance to those who are still waiting to receive their benefits. 

“Gov. Tony Evers’ administration’s response to this unemployment cris has been nothing short of a dumpster fire,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna in a statement. “The tired proposals trotted out today would only service to expand eligibility to an already strained system and fuel the flames of the problem at hand.”

The package of bills includes:

  • A bill that would allow Social Security disability recipients to receive concurrent unemployment benefits. Wisconsin is one of two states in the country that prevents people with disabilities who are able to work from receiving unemployment benefits..
  • A bill reinstating the ability of those participating in extended occupational training to receive unemployment benefits.
  • A bill to temporarily suspend the $500 wage threshold to qualify for benefits.
  • A bill to reinstate the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s authority to determine by administrative rule what constitutes a suitable job offer a claimant must accept, if offered, and what labor market conditions to review based on the number of weeks that the claimant has received benefits.
  • A bill that expands DWD’s authority to promulgate rules that provide waivers for work search and job registration requirements.
  • A bill to permanently eliminate the one-week waiting period before claimants can receive benefits.
  • A bill lowering the number of required work searches from four to two per week.
  • A bill to eliminate the concept of substantial fault being a disqualifying factor to receiving benefits. According to bill authors, this concept has created confusion for both employers and employees when an employee is discharged by their employers.