Wisconsinites with disabilities will now be eligible for federal unemployment benefits after the U.S. Department of Labor reversed course this week.
About 1,500 people who receive disability benefits applied for federal pandemic assistance after losing work because of the coronavirus outbreak. But their claims have been stalled as the Evers administration and congressional Wisconsin Democrats urged the federal labor officials to revise its rules for the state’s disabled residents.
The intervention came after Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman discovered the federal assistance could be off-limits for people with disabilities because state law bars people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance benefits from also receiving regular state unemployment benefits.
Federal labor officials maintained until this week that the state law prevented people receiving disability benefits from also receiving the federal assistance. But on Monday, the agency reversed course on its guidance in a letter dated Monday to Frostman.
“We just kept our pressure on to get a response and hope for the response we were looking for so last night’s news was really welcome,” Frostman said Tuesday.
Frostman in June asked the federal department to reevaluate its initial decision, arguing federal officials misunderstood Wisconsin’s unemployment laws.
He said that in Wisconsin, those getting disability benefits are disqualified from getting regular unemployment and therefore should not be excluded from the special pandemic benefits intended to support the self-employed and others outside the scope of regular unemployment benefits.
John Pallasch, the labor department’s assistant secretary for employment and training, agreed with Frostman’s understanding.
“Because these individuals are ineligible for regular (unemployment), they meet the (pandemic unemployment assistance) eligibility requirement of ‘not eligible for regular (unemployment) compensation,’ ” Pallasch wrote.
Pallasch also wrote that in Wisconsin, the amount of federal assistance would not be deducted from disability benefits.
“I think it’s great news that the discrimination against the disabled will stop,” said Alan Ferguson, a 56-year-old Mount Horeb man who receives disability benefits and has not been able to get the federal assistance.
“It’s a big relief that we’re sorted now, and we’re ready to move on to the next step.” he said.
But Ferguson said he is concerned that the delays that have been plaguing Wisconsin’s unemployment system might lead to a delay for him, too.
“I am hoping that the DWD has adequate staff so that these delays that we have experienced up until this point are not going to continue now that they have the guidance and that we’re not going to be waiting another four months to actually receive the funds,” he said.
Ferguson said he doesn’t need to reapply for the benefits because he already applied for the assistance, according to a letter he said he received from Frostman on Tuesday.
The DWD is encouraging disability benefit recipients to apply for the pandemic unemployment assistance. Claims from five people who were denied benefits will be processed again under the new rules.
Those eligible for the assistance “may be able to receive retroactive benefits to the week ending February 8, 2020, or the first week an individual is out of work due to COVID-19, whichever is later,” the DWD said in a news release.
Victor Forberger, supervising attorney for the University of Wisconsin’s Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic, told the Journal Sentinel that he is “very, very happy” about the decision.
But he said the state could have taken care of the issue on its own, without needing to wait for the federal guidance.
“It was no big mystery that the Department of Labor would issue this decision; the only question was when and why the Department (of Workforce Development) went through all the hoops of first denying them all eligibility because of state law … and then asking for guidance as opposed to deciding on their own, that they’re eligible for (federal) benefits, like North Carolina did (through an executive order),” Forberger said.
DWD spokesman Ben Judd said the agency wanted to get a green light from federal labor officials to avoid having to go back and collect benefit payments if the department had not ultimately sided with the agency’s position on the matter.
Jedd also said the 2013 state law that blocks disability benefit recipients from getting regular unemployment insurance could only be changed by lawmakers.