By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Pledging to remove government-created barriers that have worsened Wisconsin’s worker shortage crisis, Republican lawmakers on Tuesday rolled out a package of bills aimed at getting the unemployed back to work.
Dubbed the Stronger Workforce Initiative, the package would index unemployment benefits based on Wisconsin’s jobless rate, hold accountable unemployment recipients who refuse or fail to show up for job interviews, and tune up Gov. Tony Evers’ dysfunctional Department of Workforce Development that so miserably failed the unemployed during the pandemic.
At a Capitol press conference, the authors of the bills said the “help wanted’ signs throughout the Badger State are hard to miss. Wisconsin employers say finding and retaining workers has been their No. 1 challenge in a worker shortage crisis that has gripped the state and the nation.
State Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) and Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) in a joint press release said there’s an abundance of high-wage jobs and a large number of workers available. They say the Stronger Workforce Initiative will help remove government-created barrier between the two.”
“Republicans feel an obligation to deliver smarter government programs that provide a safety net to the truly needy but don’t compete with businesses needing to hire those who are able to work,” the lawmakers said. “It is clear that the opportunities for Wisconsin’s workforce have changed, and our government systems need to change along with them.”
In November, the latest data available, there were 3,107,800 individuals in Wisconsin’s labor force, with more than 93,000 unemployed. Meanwhile, employers everywhere are begging for workers. The shortage has forced businesses to reduce hours or temporarily close. In some cases, the crisis has driven employers out of business.
One of the proposals, would index Unemployment Insurance to the actual unemployment rate. The bill includes a sliding scale term of benefits, according to co-author, Rep. Alex Dallman (R-Green Lake), with up to 14 weeks of unemployment when the state jobless rate is low (3.5 percent) and up to 26 weeks if the rate rises above 9 percent.
Dallman said a laundry business in his district has raised starting wages to over $25 an hour, and still can’t find enough workers.
“We need to do a better job of connecting people to these high-paying jobs, to have a better quality of life,” the lawmaker said, adding the index would “fix the problem of prolonged unemployment.”
“In the economy that we’re in, people don’t need a half a year to find a job,” Dallman added.
Republican lawmakers also are proposing bills to incentivize a return to the workforce.
One measure would require the state Department of Health Services to implement a work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents to be eligible for the state’s FoodShare program. And able-bodied, childless adults on BadgerCare would no longer be able to turn down work simply to stay on the medical assistance program.
To combat a surge in unemployment fraud during the pandemic, the Stronger Workforce Initiative allows data sharing and cross-checking between government agencies . Many of the state’s welfare programs don’t regularly check for program eligibility, either at enrollment or in periodically ensuring program eligibility, the lawmakers said.
While a boom in federally-funded unemployment payments has been accompanied by a jump in theft from taxpayers, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites pushed out of their jobs by the governor’s lockdown policies were forced to wait for unemployment benefits they deserved — some for several months. The legislative package includes an “Unemployment System Tune Up” aimed at fixing the myriad problems with the Department of Workforce Development’s Unemployment Insurance program.
“When people were backed up in their unemployment benefits .. there was no overtime or extended hours for the call centers,” Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) said of the debacle that has been Evers’ Department of Workforce Development.
Reforms to the system would extend call center hours and provide Department of Administration transfers during unemployment surge periods. DWD also would be required to audit work searches by benefit recipients, something the Evers administration has all but stopped doing.
Above all, the legislative package asserts a change in attitude. One bill rebrands and updates the Unemployment Insurance Program to the Reemployment Assistance.
“By adding reemployment to the core mission of the department we prioritize the main objective of the program – to help displaced workers find a new job as quickly as possible. The bill requires DWD to match claimants with suitable work and make other changes which help transition individuals from programs to fully employed,” the bill’s authors stated in the press release.