The new (actually old) restriction on travel abroad: concealment and departmental error

Insiders in the Department of Workforce Development tell me that in December 2015 the Department began tracking people who file on-line by their IP address. Because IP addresses identity the country from where a person connects to the Internet, the Department can now tell if a claimant is filing from outside the United States.

This new ability certainly helps in preventing identity theft against claimants or fake claim filing through fictitious companies and claimants — think Nigerian prince scandals with an entourage of suddenly laid-off staffers. But, this new ability also helps the Department enforce a 2012 law. Section 1 of 2011 Wis. Act 236 created a new Wis. Stat. § 108.04(2)(ae) that reads:

A claimant is not available for work under par. (a) 1. in any week in which he or she is located in a country other than the United States, as defined in s. 108.02 (15) (do) 2., or Canada for more than 48 hours unless the claimant has authorization to work in that other country and there is a reciprocal agreement concerning the payment of unemployment insurance benefits between that other country and the United States.

NOTE: Prior to this legal change, a claimant could still be eligible for benefits if his or her job market moved with her to the other country. See Honea v. Bou-Matic LLC, UI Hearing No. 11005590MW (13 June 2012).

Unfortunately, the Department has done nothing to tell claimants about this restriction. Indeed, the only information available about this categorical restriction on unemployment benefits is from p.27 of the Department of Workforce Development’s January 2013 Financial Outlook report to the legislature:

Act 236
Tighten Benefit Eligibility Requirements for Work Availability

Act 236 also changed various portions of UI law and operations. One change in the law brought about by Act 236 is to clarify the able and available provision of UI law. If a person is outside of the United States or Canada and is not there for a reason related to current employment they are not considered able and available for work and hence not eligible for UI benefits. This codifies what was existing UI procedure. As such this is not expected to have any effect on benefits paid or the UI Trust Fund. This went into effect on April 22, 2012.

Because the Department is now tracking IP addresses, it has begun enforcing this living abroad restriction against claimants. Not surprisingly, besides being declared ineligible for any unemployment benefits for the weeks living outside the US, claimants are also being charged with concealment for intentionally hiding their living aboard status (even though there is nothing from the Department indicating that this issue exists unless you happen to read unemployment statutes).

One of those recently charged with concealment was a claimant who traveled to Germany during the winter months of early 2015 to be with his girlfriend. He was there for love, not for a vacation. Furthermore, his job search was waived for these months, but he kept in contact with his employer on a weekly basis for when he should return to work. Regardless, the Department charged him with concealment for 22 weeks, demanding him to repay $8,140 in unemployment benefits, pay a 40% concealment penalty of $3,256, and forfeit $17,020 in future unemployment benefits because of that alleged concealment. In a lengthy and generally well-reasoned decision, the appeal tribunal tossed the concealment allegations. After observing that there “is no evidence that he was aware that there were geographic restrictions with respect to the availability question for unemployment purposes,” she found:

the mere fact that as a matter of law the claimant in this case is necessarily treated as having been “unavailable” for work while staying outside the United States does not obviate the literal truth that he was at all times ready, willing and able to accept fulltime suitable work during weeks 1 through 22 of 2015.

Because the Department has done nothing to notify claimants of this restriction, the issue of departmental error was also raised. The administrative law judge declined to find departmental error, explaining:

The claimant argues that the overpayment should be waived pursuant to federal law that requires state law to include provisions that reasonably affords those entitled to unemployment compensation benefits an opportunity to know, establish, and protect their rights under its unemployment compensation law. As such the department’s failure to include the geographical restriction in the Claimant Handbook or any other notice delivered to the claimant supports a waiver of the overpayment. However, the state law is in compliance with federal law because the unemployment insurance law is accessible publicly. The entirety of the unemployment insurance law simply cannot be reduced to the Claimant Handbook. Moreover, the department has provided its contact information in the Claimant Handbook with instructions to contact the department if there is a question concerning one’s eligibility for benefits. Accordingly, it was the claimant’s responsibility to report to the department that he would be traveling abroad and to ask whether his travel had any impact on his eligibility.

In other words, the appeal tribunal held that the Department satisfied its burden to explain unemployment law to claimants because the unemployment statutes can be read by the public and the claimant still had a duty to contact the Department about an issue he did not know was actually an issue and ask whether the problem he knew nothing about was actually a problem. To me, this conclusion means that claimants need to be both attorneys and fortune tellers.

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