By Ruth Conniff
On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Wisconsin Republicans released a bill changing state unemployment insurance law.
Public hearings were scheduled for five days later in both Assembly and Senate committees that will vet the proposal. These committees met on Wednesday at the same time that the Joint Finance Committee was in executive session working on the 2013-2015 budget. On May 13, Joint Finance passed policy changes relating to unemployment insurance, including an increase in mandatory verified work searches by claimants from two to at least four per week.
Some of the changes include:
--no more extension of benefits after the expiration date for people enrolled in job training or general education courses;
--mandatory disclosure of financial information of claimants by banks to DWD in the event of overpayment of benefits;
--participation in a public employment office workshop or training program in addition to weekly verified work searches;
--people receiving Social Security disability insurance do not qualify for UI benefits;
--prison labor hired by private companies is not subject to unemployment insurance contribution requirements;
--reduction of benefits to people who have lost their professional license required to perform work;
--random work-search audits of claimants;
--more education and outreach activities and materials provided to employers;
--increased fraud investigation.
During the Senate committee hearing on SB 200, Wisconsin AFL-CIO legislative policy director and former Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan characterized the changes in SB 200 as "good for business but they are going to make it harder for workers." He said that his organization is "swallowing hard" but accepts the changes, because they went through the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council process, which involves negotiations between an equal number of labor and management representatives.
However, Sheridan expressed concerns that two items that were agreed upon by the Council had been left out of SB 200 and would show up as part of the budget bill in a more extreme form than had been negotiated. The two items of concern were an expanded definition of "misconduct" as a way to deny workers benefits, and the removal of "quit exceptions" from the list of circumstances in which a worker may terminate their employment and still receive unemployment insurance benefits.
Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) asked the bill's author Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) why he chose to leave those items out of the bill. "It's my opinion that they need more work," said Knodl.
Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), author of SB 200/ AB 219. Mike Sheridan looks on. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
But even as Knodl was speaking those words, the Joint Finance Committee was busy cobbling together an omnibus motion that disregarded the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council recommendations. Less than an hour after the Senate committee adjourned, Assembly Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee were handing out the 16-page document to committee members. Co-chair Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) suggested that the committee take a 30-minute recess so that Democratic committee members could get a chance to review the motion and organize their responses.
During that recess, the Assembly Committee on Labor convened to take up SB 200/AB 219. Ranking Democrat Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) requested committee chairman Rep. Knodl to postpone the hearing until after Joint Finance voted on their motion. Knodl declined and plowed ahead, even though there were few people there to testify since the concerned parties were up in the Joint Finance room pouring over the newly introduced motion. Rep. Knodl announced that the committee will meet on Monday, June 3, to vote on the bill.
Back in Joint Finance, the four Democrats on the sixteen-person committee came out of recess with their rhetorical guns blazing. Calling the motion a sham and "the most sloppily written far-reaching thing that we've done," Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) slammed the proposal for potentially conflicting with federal law and for providing "seven new ways to get people kicked off unemployment insurance."
Speaking to Republican committee members, Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) called the motion a "wish list of everything you couldn't get through the regular process and are now shoving into this bill." Calling it an end-run around the normal Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council process, Mason asked, "When are we going to start talking about getting people back to work instead of kicking them when they're down?"
Sen. Jennifer Shilling likened the practice of adding policy items to the budget bill to decorating a Christmas tree. "This is not a good use of our power," she said. Shilling called out her Republican colleagues for not walking their talk: "We talk about wanting to support working families, but we so rarely stand up for the little guy when we have that choice."
Sen. Robert Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) said, "We have been a model for other states of how labor and management can work together and you've destroyed it with this motion. The hell with 50 years of tradition. That's not the way we should run this state. Extremists have taken over."
Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council member Mark Reihl confirmed that the items missing from SB 200/AB 219 had indeed appeared in the Joint Finance motion in their most extreme versions. The expanded definition of misconduct that disqualifies a worker from receiving unemployment insurance benefits now includes being convicted of a civil forfeiture offense (getting a ticket) even when it is not job-related, and the elimination of half of the 18 "quit exceptions."
Also included in the motion is an appropriation of up to $30 million to cover interest payments to the federal government for advances made to the state's unemployment reserve fund made several years ago at the height of the recession. Employers have been charged a special assessment to cover these payments and this provision would shift the burden to the state.
Committee Republicans defended the motion by focusing on the reduction in the special assessment and promoted it as a way to support small businesses. Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) took offense at Sen. Wirch's characterization of the committee as "extremists." Instead he said they were just making common-sense alterations to unemployment insurance policy. "We are not going to have the legislature have our hands tied behind our backs as small businesses are begging us to do something while Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council refuses to do anything."
The motion passed the committee on a party line vote.
Highlights from the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue hearing on SB 200:
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.