Evers 'can't imagine' he'll sign bill that would end extra unemployment aid

By Jessie Opoien

The Republican-led Wisconsin Legislature approved a bill on Wednesday that would prevent unemployed Wisconsinites from receiving an additional $300 in federal aid — but the legislation is all but certain to die on the governor's desk.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he "can't imagine" he'll sign the bill, which would end Wisconsin’s participation in four federal programs created during the pandemic to provide extra financial assistance for the unemployed.

If the bill were to be enacted, it would reduce the maximum weekly unemployment benefit from $670 per week to $370 week. It passed on party-line votes in both chambers of the Legislature.

The supplemental assistance is set to expire on Sept. 6, but 25 states with Republican governors have said they will start phasing it out starting this month.

The move comes after a push from the state's business lobby to cut off the assistance early, based on the assumption that the enhanced aid is deterring people from returning to work.

Democrats opposed the measure, arguing it would make it more difficult for those who need help to receive it. Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, noted during the Assembly debate that the change could negatively affect people who have been furloughed for their jobs and are waiting to be called back, and people who were relying on the extra financial assistance to get them through the summer until school starts again.

Scott Manley, executive vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, said in an interview that eliminating the federal supplement was a priority for the group because its members believe it's had a significant impact on their ability to hire workers — which results in some businesses having to turn down contracts or reduce their hours of operation.

"Certainly we were facing a worker shortage before the pandemic and before the enhanced unemployment benefits, but the magnitude of the problem has increased significantly — and that’s really, I think, what’s changed and what distinguished the severity of the problem now vs. the severity of the problem 18 months ago, and that’s this additional benefit that, for a lot of workers, based on their wages, definitely creates a disincentive to reenter the workforce."

Employers have raised wages as they compete for workers, according to the latest Department of Labor data, and both Manley and several lawmakers shared anecdotes of employers offering hiring and retention bonuses. 

But wages aren't the only condition keeping people from the workforce. Economists point to child care access, health concerns and career changes as other factors.

"When people have child care, they will go to work. When people feel safe at work, they will go to work. When people have health care, they will go to work. When people are paid a living wage, they will go to work," state Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, tweeted before the vote.

DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek noted during a legislative hearing last month that low-wage workers, women and people of color have had higher rates of job loss and slower rates of economic recovery related to the pandemic — attributed in part to family caregiving needs and employment in the service and hospitality industries. Access to affordable child care has impeded some people’s ability to return to work, she said.

Wisconsin’s current unemployment rate is 3.9%, compared to 3.1% in March 2020 before the coronavirus hit, and 14.1% in April 2020. The U.S. average is 6.1%.

Late last month, Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules voted to reinstate a rule requiring unemployed people to search for work in order to receive government aid. That rule was slated to return on July 10, but like the federal supplement, Republicans argued it had gone on too long.

The bill passed on Wednesday also includes language related to that rule; it would prevent the state Department of Workforce Development from waiving the unemployment work search requirement for any reason related to COVID-19.

Evers has argued that there's no data to confirm that unemployment benefits are keeping people on the sidelines, and told the Journal Sentinel that investments in education, transit and health care would help bring workers to Wisconsin.

WMC's Manley agreed that Wisconsin needs to do a better job of attracting workers, and said declining birth rates indicate the need for the state to fund a coordinated talent attraction campaign, targeting people in the upper Midwest and selling Wisconsin as a great place to live, work and raise a family.

WMC also supports increasing funding for K-12 programs that prepare students for the workforce — including additional opportunities for STEM, industrial arts and technical education — and connecting people who have been incarcerated or struggled with addiction with job training opportunities. 

One sliver of bipartisanship emerged during the Assembly debate on Wednesday, when Reps. Pat Snyder, R-Schofield, and Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, agreed to work with each other in the future to study the state's child care situation.

Billings read from a 2017 U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report that named quality child care as a "powerful two-generation approach to building the human capital that a prosperous and sustainable America requires."

"This is our solution," Billings said. "Join us at looking at these more complicated, but better answers."