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2013 law removed several protections, now making people ineligible for unemployment benefits

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Micheala Lawver knew she was not alone but company has not helped her catch up on bills. Lawver returned to work in late May but said she is still behind because Wisconsin's unemployment laws determined she was ineligible for benefits until June, even though she had been out of work since March.

Lawver, who lives in Appleton, contacted 27 News after finding a story online that profiled the struggles Morgan Giddings of Lone Rock has experienced in having her application rejected. Like Giddings, Lawver said she quit a part-time job before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Wisconsin.

"Because I voluntarily quit Barnes & Noble, and I was fully capable of still working there, I didn't qualify until I hit $1,200, was my minimum I was supposed to hit," Lawver said.

Lawver left the bookstore because she anticipated getting more hours at her other job, a golf course, with spring around the corner. With the "safer at home" order, Lawver instead had no hours. Unemployment law requires people to earn six times the amount of their weekly benefit rate if they left a job voluntarily during the 18 months prior to filing for unemployment insurance.

Prior to 2013, state law made an exception for a number of instances, including people who quit one of multiple jobs they held, so long as one of the jobs provided full-time hours. Act 20 removed nine of those protections, including the exception for people with multiple jobs. Prior to Act 20, the following exceptions applied for people who voluntarily left a job under state statute 108.04 (7): (d), (g), (j), (k), (m), (n), (o), (p) and (r).  

Scott Walker, who was the governor then and signed off on the bill, said Thursday he would be open to supporting changes that temporarily made more people eligible for benefits. Walker went on to say the protections Republicans removed in 2013 are not the source of problems unemployed Wisconsinites currently face.

"Making change there is fine but that's not the hangup," Walker said. "Let's be clear, the issue, when you talk about since March, is not because of changes that were made in the past, it's because they do not have enough bodies."

Struggle over a solution

Walker's message is one Republican legislative leaders repeated Thursday in response to a package of bills legislative Democrats introduced earlier in the day.

The Democrats package of eight bills included measures that would allow recipients of social security disability payments to also receive unemployment insurance. Another measure would temporarily remove the $500 per week wage threshold. The proposal also would give the Department of Workforce Development more flexibility to waive work search and job registration requirements.

"We've put forth this package in hopes we can convince our Republican colleagues to come back to the table," said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D - Madison). "There is no reason that the legislature should not meet to put up this package right now."

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R - Rochester) said legislation is not the solution to a problem Vos said was caused by Gov. Tony Evers' administration failing to properly staff the DWD to handle the barrage of unemployment applications.

“With Democrats putting out these bills, they’re admitting that the governor’s UI response has been a failure." Vos said in a statement. "Democrats are trying to reinstate failed policies when their elimination contributed to record low unemployment and prosperity while eliminating fraud. Democrats simply want to make it easier to stay on unemployment and cheat the system.”

The Department of Administration announced Thursday it was moving more personnel over to the DWD to help process claims. The DWD said it now has 1,800 people helping to process claims versus the 500 it had at the beginning of the pandemic.

None of the Democrats' proposals Thursday would restore the exceptions that 2013 Act 20 eliminated.

"I hope something can be done for those of us that are still struggling," Lawver said. "I mean, we're doing the best that we can and, in times like this, it's just not enough."

A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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