Wisconsin not planning to seek repayment on $300 federal unemployment benefit

Wisconsin residents receiving an extra $300 in federal unemployment benefits won’t be required to repay the money unless directed by the federal government, the Department of Workforce Development said. 

The state was notified Friday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that there is no reason to believe that the benefits would have to be paid back, according to an email to the department. 

The confusion over repayment of the benefit began after the department put a question on its weekly unemployment filing site asking recipients to acknowledge that they may have to pay the benefit back if Congress enacted a new stimulus program. Those filling out the form had to answer “yes” to the question to be able to submit their weekly filing. 

FEMA sought to clarify the benefits because there was concern that the question would lead to unemployed Wisconsinites not filing for unemployment assistance that they needed, the email said. 

Ben Jedd, the communications specialist for the department said that the question was included to be transparent, so recipients weren’t surprised if they were notified the money had to be returned. 

This screenshot provided by labor attorney Victor Forberger shows a message from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

The program was confusing for both the state and unemployment filers, Jedd said, because there was little guidance available on how the program would work. It was unclear if those receiving the benefits would be required to repay them if a stimulus program passed by Congress provided a second payment of benefits for the weeks the order covered, he said. 

So the department put the note on its website, as many other states did, Jedd said. 

But as of now, it doesn’t look like a stimulus package would be retroactive to the weeks covered by the executive order, even if one is passed. 

“To be clear, DWD has not and does not intend to proactively recover payments from claimants unless as otherwise required by law or based on future guidance from the federal government,” Jedd said. 

The question has since been removed from the website. 

The $300 is a part of the Lost Wages Assistance program established by President Donald Trump in an August executive order, which authorized $44 billion from the FEMA’s disaster relief fund to be used for unemployment. 

Currently, the benefit is available for six weeks and is retroactive to Aug. 1. The additional money likely won’t start going out to unemployment recipients until October, though, because the department has to code its system to pay out the money. 

Backlog of claims still growing

So far, over 513,000 Wisconsin residents have applied for weekly unemployment benefits due to the coronavirus pandemic. They have submitted over 6.5 million applications for benefits since the pandemic hit, according to department data. 

But nearly 11% of those weekly claims are still waiting in a backlog of over 713,000 claims as of Sept. 12, the data shows, which breaks down to 98,309 individuals. 

Some of those claimants have been waiting as long as March to access their unemployment benefits. Those who have been waiting since the early months of the pandemic haven’t received benefits yet due to complicated situations that have to go through a lengthy adjudication process, the department said. 

There’s no estimation for when those early claims will be cleared, and no estimation for when the backlog of claims will be gone, either, department officials have said.

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@gannett.com and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.