Legislature Reinstates Work Search Requirement for Those Receiving Unemployment Benefits

A legislative committee has voted to end a temporary rule that suspended the work search requirement for people receiving unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. By a 6-4, party line vote on May 19, the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) ended the emergency rule promulgated by the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). Without committee action, the rule was set to expire July 10; now, the work search requirement will resume on Sunday, May 23.

At a JCRAR hearing the same day, DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek testified in favor of the rule, saying that the agency’s staff was not ready to resume administering the requirement. Typically, Wisconsin requires UI applicants to certify that they have made at least four job searches in a week to receive benefits.

Republican legislators on the committee argued that employers are having trouble finding enough workers in part because widely available, easy-to-obtain UI benefits are keeping workers at home. In turn, Democratic committee members argued that revoking the emergency rule adds unnecessary complications to the UI application process and ignores the difficulties faced by some workers in securing childcare before they can return to work.

Since early 2020, Wisconsin’s UI system has become a key political issue between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the administration of Democratic Governor Tony Evers. The emergence of COVID-19 and subsequent public health orders drove an influx of UI claims that DWD had difficulty processing in a timely manner, leading to a large backlog of claims. In his 2021 State of the State address, Gov. Evers called on the Legislature to take up his proposal to modernize the state’s UI system. The Legislature passed a compromise bill with some of the governor’s desired reforms, and DWD later secured a federal grant to fund the initial phase of updates.

In related news, on May 18, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senator Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) announced their plans for a bill to end Wisconsin’s participation in a federal UI supplement program that provides an extra $300 per week for those receiving unemployment benefits. The legislators argue that the federal supplement discourages people from returning to the workforce. Speaker Vos said he hopes the Legislature will vote on the bill in June.

Following that announcement, Gov. Evers questioned the legislators’ motives for the bill and cited Wisconsin’s tight labor market pre-pandemic as an explanation for employers’ issues finding enough workers. The governor is expected to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.