Patrick Hickey says that an additional filing requirement to collect unemployment compensation will lead to late checks and lost benefits, and that imposing it is part of how Gov. Scott Walker is curtailing assistance to state residents.
“This is part and parcel of the administration's goal to stigmatize poverty and shame poor people by making the system so cumbersome and humiliating that people give up,” said Hickey, a member of the Workers’ Rights Center in Madison.
The new rule will require workers making weekly unemployment benefits claims by phone to begin faxing or mailing in a log of their weekly job search efforts, according to a notice on the state Department of Workforce Development web site.
The Unemployment Insurance Division of DWD “will validate your work search before issuing payment,” the notice states about the new practice that goes into effect this Sunday.
The notice says that the process could take up 10 days and encourages people to make their unemployment claims online, instead of by phone.
People making unemployment compensation claims by phone previously have been required to keep a job search log that state officials could require them to produce.
Hickey says adding more requirements to qualify to get unemployment compensation benefits hits low-wage workers hardest.
“Computer access for low income people is limited. Just the act of getting the forms, getting a stamp and mailing the job search form is an unnecessary burden,” Hickey said.
And the job search log is just the latest in a series of newly erected obstacles for people trying to access aid programs, Walker critics say.
The biennium budget signed by Walker last month requires recipients of ID programs like unemployment compensation and food stamps to undergo initial screenings for drug use and subject to drug tests later.
And a 2013 law changed the criteria for being denied unemployment benefits from “willful misconduct” leading to job termination to “substantial fault” in the loss of job.
The change has led to a much higher rate of denial of benefits, said Hickey, whose agency assists restaurant, hotel, manufacturing and construction workers – among others – who are part of the state’s unemployment insurance system.
The new job search reporting rules are meant to “strengthen the integrity of the unemployment insurance program,” DWD communications director John Dipko said in an email.
Hickey said that the Walker administration is inflating claims of fraud “as an excuse to create a bureaucratic maze that workers must navigate to get the most basic level of support –insurance they have earned – while they search for new work.”
He compared the specter of unemployment fraud to the claims of voter fraud that the legislature’s Republican majority cited as a rationale for Voter ID legislation: “a boogie man created to demonize people and create additional restrictions that leave workers desperate and insecure.”
DWD indentified $86.3 million in benefits overpayments due to fraud from 2011-2014, a state audit reported. And DWD secretary Reginald Newson cited a 2014 fraudulent overpayment rate of 2.8 percent in a letter to auditors in June, compared to a national rate of 3.1 percent.
A proposed new measure to punish unemployment insurance fraud had a hearing Tuesday before the Assembly Public Benefits Reform Committee. In addition to existing financial penalties, the bill would ban anyone who repeatedly defrauds the state in order to receive unemployment insurance benefits from receiving future benefits for a period of seven years.
Madison attorney Victor Forberger, who represents employers and workers in labor cases, said such anti “concealment” measures penalize people who make mistakes filing their unemployment claims and try to get them corrected.
“They say they are intentionally putting in wrong information to get more unemployment compensation, but they’re the ones who reported the mistakes,” Forberger said.
Meanwhile, accessing unemployment is definitely becoming more difficult, he said. “The department is creating all these hoops to qualify.”
As to the new job search reporting requirement, he wondered what verification practices DWD will adopt and how the department will manage to verify claimants’ activities without delaying payment.
DWD won’t need additional staff, Dipko said. “We have sufficient staff levels to quickly validate logs and issue timely payments once we receive the work search information,” he said.
Virtually all payments now are made electronically, he said, so payment can be made immediately upon verification of the four work search actions now required of most unemployment compensation recipients.