State expands unemployment programs aimed at helping those who turned down jobs or had reduced hours during COVID-19 pandemic

Wisconsin is launching an expansion of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, making more Wisconsinites eligible for benefits after an initial denial. 

The Department of Workforce Development announced Wednesday morning that it would expand the program after the federal government enabled expansion in February.

The department will mail 28,000 notices to residents this week, informing them of the change and encouraging them to re-apply for the program if they have previously applied for the program before Dec. 27, 2020. Those who qualify could be eligible for up to 79 weeks of back payments. 

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The department expects to release millions of dollars in additional PUA payments through the expansion. 

“We know thousands of Wisconsinites, many of whom have pre-existing conditions, did not feel safe returning to work as the pandemic swept across our state if their employers chose not to enforce safety precautions,” said Amy Pechacek, the secretary designee of the department.

PUA was established near the beginning of the pandemic to allow self-employed people and contractors to get access to unemployment benefits. But people were frequently denied for the program in Wisconsin, leaving them without benefits as the coronavirus pandemic shut down businesses across the state for months. 

The new expansion will include benefits for those who: 

  • Did not return to work or accept an offer of work because a worksite was out of compliance with local, state or national health and safety standards for COVID-19. Standards include mask-wearing, physical distancing measures or access to personal protective equipment.
  • Provide services to educational institutions or educational service agency and are unemployed or partially unemployed because of volatility in their work schedule, caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency. 
  • Had their hours reduced or were laid off as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency. For example, a server at a restaurant that was laid off for eight weeks while the restaurant was closed to in-person dining, but remained open for carry-out and delivery service. 

Those who had not previously applied for PUA but believe they are now eligible can also apply for the expansion, the department said. New applications with be subject to backdating limitations, though. 

Wisconsin’s unemployment system is returning to normal, with fewer applications and weekly claims flowing in. During the week of April 17, the latest data available, only 18,805 people applied for regular unemployment, while nearly 56,000 people applied during the same periods a year ago.

During the same week, about 1,300 people applied for the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program and about 1,700 applied for PUA. About 94,000 people filed continuing weekly claims for regular unemployment during the same week, about 25,000 people filed a weekly PEUC weekly claim, and about 27,000 people filed a weekly PUA claim. 

More than 8,500 people are awaiting adjudication as of April 17, and nearly 14,000 people are waiting for appeals hearings to be scheduled. It is not yet clear what will happen to those waiting on an appeal over a PUA denial. 

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At this time last. year, claims overwhelmed Wisconsin’s outdated unemployment system. In combination with trouble implementing federal programs approved in the federal stimulus bills, the old system failed, causing a backlog of more 100,000 claims that forced people to wait months for their benefits. 

PUA caused a particularly bad backlog because it couldn’t be run through the state’s unemployment system, and each case had to be handled by an adjudicator. 

The expanded PUA program isn’t the only one that Wisconsin has taken months to implement. According to the department’s tracker, the state still has not implemented the Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation program, which would allow people who work a mix of jobs including self-employment to access benefits. That program, which was approved by the federal government earlier this year, is scheduled to launch on May 19. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura