MADISON – The leader of the state Assembly expressed reservations Tuesday about accepting millions of dollars in federal aid to provide unemployment benefits for people during their first week out of a job.
Under the recently passed $1.9 trillion stimulus law, the federal government will pay the entire cost of unemployment benefits for the first week people are out of work. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos suggested suspending the one-week waiting period for benefits might discourage people from getting back into the workforce.
“I think the problem is not the suspension of a one-week waiting period. It’s getting more people into the workforce to fill the huge number of jobs that are going unresponsive to employers who need folks,” the Rochester Republican told reporters.
Vos stressed that he had not talked to other Republicans who control the Legislature and said no final decisions have been made.
Republicans a decade ago instituted the one-week waiting period to help shore up the state’s unemployment fund. They agreed to temporarily end it last year because the federal government began paying for benefits during the first week of unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic.
The state’s one-week waiting period recently went back into effect because the federal aid for benefits was coming to an end. But the new stimulus law, known as the American Rescue Plan, will continue to have the federal government pay for the first week of benefits because the pandemic is ongoing.
If the Wisconsin Legislature again suspends the waiting period, those who lose their jobs could receive hundreds of dollars during their first week of unemployment at no cost to the state or its employers.
But Vos said suspending the one-week waiting period could have the “unintended consequence” of keeping people on the sidelines when businesses are looking for workers.
Suspending the one-week waiting period would require the support of the Assembly and Senate, both of which are controlled by Republicans. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers backs the idea and has called for permanently ending the waiting period.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, a Republican from Oostburg, declined to say what he thought of suspending the waiting period as he stepped off the Senate floor after a session Tuesday.
Democratic Rep. Daniel Riemer of Milwaukee said it was a bad idea to give up millions of dollars in federal aid that could help people as soon as they lose their jobs.
“The fact that you lose a job doesn’t mean you lose the requirement to pay rent, the requirement to pay your mortgage, the requirement to pay for day care, which is so expensive, or for groceries,” he said.
Wisconsin’s unemployment system has caused some of the state’s biggest problems throughout the pandemic.
The state Department of Workforce Development was crushed by the high volume of claims at the beginning of the outbreak as unemployed Wisconsinites applied for benefits.
The department tried to quickly hire employees but struggled to implement new federal benefit programs with its outdated computer system. Thousands of unemployed people waited months for their payments, with some struggling to feed families, pay rent and keep the lights on.
At one point, more than 100,000 claims were caught in the backlog.
The department was able to catch up on the claims in December, but some applicants are still waiting for an adjudicator or judge to determine whether they qualify for benefits. Nearly 16,000 people are still waiting on an appeal, according to department data.
The most recent data from the department show more than 12,000 people filed for unemployment for the first time during the week of March 6. Nearly 100,000 people filed a regular weekly claim.
Those figures do not include claims filed under recent federal programs, such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and the Pandemic Unemployment Emergency Assistance program.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.