Politics

Wisconsin Unemployment: More Than 10,000 Await Return Of Benefits

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After Gov. Scott Walker signed a budget bill on Sunday making unemployment benefits stingier for new layoff victims, more than 10,000 jobless Wisconsin workers are still waiting for state lawmakers to pass a bill restoring long-term benefits that expired in April.

A state advisory panel comprised of business leaders and worker advocates recommended reviving the benefits last week, prompting Democratic leaders in the state assembly to call on the Republican majority to schedule an immediate vote on the benefits. But it could take several weeks, or even months, for the legislature to act.

The workers stopped receiving checks when Wisconsin lost its eligibility for the federal Extended Benefits program, which in Wisconsin provides 13 additional weeks of aid for unemployed workers who have used up 73 weeks of combined state and federal benefits. To get the program back lawmakers need to tweak state law so it conforms with a new federal standard that allows the benefits to continue.

HuffPost readers: Unemployed in Wisconsin and missing out on Extended Benefits? Tell us about it -- email arthur@huffingtonpost.com. Please include your phone number if you're willing to do an interview.

Walker pushed for the change shortly after the checks stopped two months ago, noting that keeping the benefits would bring $89 million worth of federal money into Wisconsin at no cost to the state. But he said at the time that he questioned whether workers really needed the benefits.

"I am of a mindset that a further extension of benefits won't create a single job or encourage citizens to rejoin the workforce," Walker said in an April letter to the state's Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council. (Workers are generally required to remain in the workforce -- i.e. search for work -- as a condition of receiving benefits.)

Walker asked that in exchange for being nice to workers, lawmakers enact a new rule requiring people laid off through no fault of their own to wait one week before they can collect benefits after filing an unemployment claim. The waiting period would save the state's unemployment trust fund $45.2 million a year.

Workers who use up all 26 weeks of state-funded benefits ultimately receive the same amount they would have without a waiting period, but workers who find jobs within that time frame are effectively shorted one week of compensation, resulting in savings for the state. In 2010, Wisconsin was one of just 13 states that had no waiting period.

The advisory council, which meets once a month, did not act on Walker's recommendation until last week -- after Republican lawmakers had already included the waiting period in a budget bill.

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin state chapter of AFL-CIO and a member of the unemployment advisory board, said attaching the waiting period to the federal benefits was a phony bargain. "The federal extension was a federal program that had no cost to the state," he said. Neuendfeldt said the labor leaders on the council recommended keeping the benefits back in February.

James Buchen of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a lobbying association for local businesses, said his group was "a little bit concerned about reports everybody's getting" about jobless workers turning down offers because they'd rather collect unemployment. But Buchen, who is a member of the unemployment advisory board, said those concerns have been put aside and that the business lobbying group supported keeping the benefits.

Every member of the council, including business leaders, objected to Republicans acting without the panel's consent to include the waiting period in a budget bill that Walker signed into law on Sunday. The board historically guides the legislature on unemployment issues.

Republicans in several other states have used the need to pass Extended Benefits legislation as leverage to change state law to permanently reduce benefits, most notably in Missouri and Michigan. All federal programs are set to expire next January, yet changes to state programs will be permanent.

Georgia Maxwell, a top official with the state's Department of Workforce Development, said Walker's administration still supported restoring the Extended Benefits now that Walker's already won the waiting period he wanted. She said she expected the council to make recommendations to the legislature in July.

Wisconsin's unemployment rate is currently at 7.4 percent.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Maxwell said the legislature would pass a bill in July. She said only that the council would make its recommendation.

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