March 25, 2020 – The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development issued a scope statement for an emergency rule that will temporarily relax unemployment insurance benefit eligibility requirements for claimants during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new scope statement is the latest of many steps by the state and federal governments to help people whose lives are upended by the virus.
Gov. Tony Evers declared a health emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12, 2020. Several emergency orders followed his Executive Order #72, including to close schools, prohibit mass gatherings, and restrict the size of child care settings.
Gov. Evers also issued Emergency Order #7, which provides for expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits for Wisconsin workers who are quarantined due to COVID-19.
The Emergency Order relieves claimants of the requirement to search for work during the public health emergency because the “public health emergency constitutes four work search actions for each claimant ... for each week” of the emergency.
Janell Knutson is the chair of the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council and Director of the Bureau of Legal Affairs of the Unemployment Insurance Division of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
Andy Rubsam is senior unemployment insurance attorney at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
Unemployment insurance claimants must usually complete four work search actions for each week that they file a claim. The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act permits states to temporarily waive work search requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emergency Order #7 also provides that claimants are considered available for work if they could work for their employer or another employer but for being perceived by an employer as exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms preventing a return to work or being quarantined by a medical professional or under a local, state, or federal direction or guidance due to COVID-19. Also, a claimant is not considered to have missed available work (which can disqualify claimants) during the public health emergency.
The March 23, 2020 scope statement provides the Department will issue an emergency rule regarding work search and availability for work eligibility requirements that will be in effect for the public health emergency. The Department expects that the emergency rule will, like Emergency Order #7, relax certain eligibility requirements for claimants.
However, federal law still requires claimants to be able to work in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits; state law must abide by this restriction. This means that those who are too sick to work are ineligible.
Other statutory restrictions on unemployment insurance eligibility remain in effect. The waiting week, for example, delays the payment of the first week of benefits by one week. Governor Evers has asked the Legislature to repeal the waiting week so that claimants are able to access unemployment benefits faster.
For the week of March 15-21, 2020, the Department received about 69,000 initial applications for unemployment insurance benefits, which is more than 13 times the 5,200 initial claims filed for the same calendar week in 2019.
Since the Great Recession, the Department has updated its online claims filing system. As a result, about 99% of the 69,000 initial claims filed for the week of March 15 were filed online, with 98-99% completed online. The online claims filing portal reduces delays in receiving benefits.
The Department has answers to frequently asked questions on its website about eligibility and COVID-19. Whenever someone is totally or partially unemployed and unsure if they are eligible for unemployment insurance benefits, they should apply for benefits. The Department urges people to go to online to look for answers to their questions before calling for assistance.
Employers May Avoid Layoffs with Work-Share
The Work-Share Program can help both employers and employees. Employers can submit a plan to the Department to reduce work hours across a work unit. Workers in the work unit whose hours are reduced can receive pro-rata unemployment benefits while retaining any employer-sponsored benefits, like insurance. The Department has recently seen an increased interest in work-share.
Disaster Unemployment Assistance is a Possibility
On March 20, 2020, President Trump declared a major disaster under the Stafford Act for New York State due to COVID-19. This declaration triggers federal benefits for a state, which can include FEMA-funded disaster unemployment assistance (“DUA”) benefits. DUA benefits only cover people who are ineligible for state unemployment insurance benefits, including the self-employed. A major disaster has never been declared for a pandemic; that declaration has only been used for natural disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes. DUA is not currently available in Wisconsin due to COVID-19 but that could change.
This article is originally published in the Coronavirus & the Law Blog from the State Bar of Wisconsin. To be notified of updates to the blog, subscribe to the Coronavirus & the Law Blog's RSS feed via this link at feeds.feedburner.com.