Tips for filing for unemployment benefits in Wisconsin

As noted here and here (and too many others to list), filing for unemployment benefits in Wisconsin is dangerous. Any mistake you make on a claim can lead to a concealment/fraud charge by the Department of Workforce Development against you.

So, if you must file for unemployment benefits, here are some key things to do when filing.

Read the Worker’s Guide

Download and read A Worker’s Guide to Unemployment Law. Most of the information presented here is from that guide.

Be self-reliant

Do not rely on the Department’s on-line system to explain or inform you about what is going on with your claim. The on-line system is intended to provide the Department with information about you and your claim and does not provide much, if any, information about why the Department is taking some action or how it will do so. To get actual information about what the Department is doing, you need to call or review decision documents that are mailed to you.

NOTE: At some point, the Department should make decision documents available to you via its on-line system. Until then, the on-line system is limited in providing actual information about your unemployment claim. And, keep in mind that when on-line notices arrive, there will also be significant consequences to you. The story in Michigan about on-line only claims notice indicates dire problems with missed appeal deadlines for claimants in Wisconsin when that kind of notice arrives here.

Obviously, you also need to be your own record-keeper. For every conversation you have with a Department staffer, take detailed notes of what you say and what is told to you. If you have trouble with taking notes, record those conversations.

The unemployment system right now is geared to punish you for any mistakes you make. The Department, on the other hand, has limited its liability for those mistakes and will certainly deny any responsibility for its own mistakes. The best way you can hold the Department accountable is if you have your own records to back up your claims about mistaken advice you may have received.

Register at https://jobcenterofwisconsin.com/

Create a user-id and password and upload a resume to this website as soon as you file an unemployment claim. As Laura Hoffman, UI Hearing No.17002961MW (16 Nov. 2017) indicates, benefits will not be paid until this step is completed. The quality of the resume is unimportant, so do not delay in order to get the resume done right. You can always revise the resume later.

Be able and available for work

To receive benefits, you must be available for full-time work, and usually you must be available during daytime or first-shift hours or the hours in which your type of work is typically performed. For example, a bartender might be disqualified for restricting availability to first-shift work rather than nights and weekends, while a bank teller might be disqualified for restricting availability to nights and weekends.

There are some factors to watch out for when filing an unemployment claim:

  • Education: Students almost never qualify for benefits if their classes are during daytime hours or occurring during the hours in which their type of work is usually performed. Even if the student promises to drop out if he or she gets a job, he or she will likely be found to be unavailable. Only if the student is taking classes that will not lead to a degree and is not a full-time student can a person still be considered able and available for work.
  • Disabilities: Disabilities that restrict your hours of work or the kind of work you do are NOT disqualifying. See Eaton v. R & D Drywall, Inc., UI Hearing No. 08004119MD (27 July 2009), Wright v. Independence First Inc., UI Hearing No. 09607759MW (8 March 2010), and Dugenske v. New Haven of Oshkosh, UI Hearing No. 12403278AP (12 Feb. 2013) (claimant with a physical and/or psychological restriction is only required to be able to work on a part-time basis and does not need to work full-time in order to qualify for unemployment benefits). But, if you receive SSDI benefits because of that disability you are completely barred from receiving unemployment benefits, even if laid off from full-time jobs.
  • Transportation: You cannot overly restrict the geographic areas in which you are willing to work. Depending on your labor market and the type of work involved, most people are expected to travel anywhere from 15 to 25 miles each way. Certain jobs, such as construction work, may require up to a 50-mile commute. So, expect that daily driving by car or use of public transportation as part of being able and available for work. If your car breaks down, there is no public transportation, and you do not have access to other cars, the Department will consider you to NOT be able and available for work.

Do four job searches a week and expect an audit

You need to do four job searches each week and report those searches on every weekly claim certification. Use the UCB-12 form for tracking each week’s job searches. And, keep copies of these forms for 52 weeks (because the Department will audit you at some point).

Per Bodo Viliunas, UI Hearing No. 15607525MW (4 March 2016), the following actions count as one of those four job searches:

  • Applying for work with employers who have available openings (a second application to the same employer within four weeks is not allowed, unless the application is to a new, different job, the employer’s customary practices allow for multiple applications to the same job opening, or the employer is a temporary help employer).
  • Taking examinations for suitable work, such as civil service or a similar kind of test, such as a WorkKeys exam.
  • Registering for suitable work with a public or private placement facility, including a union.
  • Mandatory Job Center of Wisconsin registration.
  • Posting a resume on an employment website (only one posting per website is normally allowed).
  • Following the recommendations of a public employment office or similar re-employment services, including participation in reemployment services.
  • Attending non-mandatory re-employment services operated by DWD.
  • Registering with placement facility or head hunter.
  • Meeting with a career counselor.
  • Participating in a job interview.
  • Participating in weekly professional networking group connected to your profession.

Again, expect that your job search efforts will be audited. Insiders at the Department inform me that, besides dedicated audit teams, all claims workers at the Department need to review a specific number of claims each week as part of their regular job duties. In other words, the Department has made finding claimant “mistakes” a priority for everyone working there.

When audited, you (not the employer) will need to supply some kind of confirmation from the employer about your job application. That confirmation is best handled by keeping the e-mail message you receive from the employer or website and submitting that e-mail message to the Department as proof of your job application.

Of course, the Department will probably not allow you to forward that e-mail message to the Department staffer auditing your job search records. Rather, you will likely need to print the e-mail confirmation and fax or mail that message to the Department staffer. As one insider explained this auditing procedure to me: It is annoying for everyone, and there is no reason for this no e-mail policy other than claimant inconvenience.

Take advantage of your canvassing period

You may have up to six weeks from when you became unemployed in which you can turn down work which is a lower grade of skill or at a significantly lower rate of pay than you had on one or more recent jobs without losing your eligibility for benefits. During your canvassing period you will be able to turn down jobs that do not pay as well as your old job (less than 80% of your old wage) or require less skill but you may be found ineligible if you turn down a job offer for a position similar to your old job.

After the canvassing period ends, however, you need to accept reasonable job offers. Benninger v. Spherion Atlantic Resources LLC, UI Hearing No. 04004083MD (17 December 2004) (“a sliding scale approach has been applied to determine whether an employee had good cause to refuse an offer of work after the six-week canvassing period”). What is reasonable is in the eye of the beholder, however, so generally plan on accepting any job offers you receive after your canvassing period is over.

Temp agency assignments trigger numerous disqualification opportunities

Not only do you need to contact your temp agency for a new assignment whenever your current assignment ends, but you also need to contact your temp agency each week you claim unemployment benefits if that temporary job agency is your last employer. That is, once employed at a temp agency, you have an on-going requirement on each week of your unemployment claim to continue to contact that temp agency for new assignments. See this post for the details.

If you fail to contact that temp agency about available assignments each subsequent week you claim unemployment benefits, the temp agency can inform DWD of your lack of contact. You will then have to prove that: (a) either you actually did contact the temp agency by having phone logs or copies of e-mail messages and letters showing that contact, or (b) the temp agency failed to inform you of this requirement when you last worked for it.

Speak with a DWD staffer always

The claimants’ handbook in Wisconsin is a confusing document to read — full of legalese and jargon — about a claim-filing process that should be simple and easy but is hardly that. Cf. the Wisconsin claimants’ guide to Iowa, Minnesota, or Massachusetts, for example.

So, the only way to make sure you are not making a mistake on your weekly claims certification is to ask a Department staffer about all the questions you are answering each week (the weekly claim certification now involves 20-40 questions and should usually take at least half an hour to complete). As noted below, the information needed to file an unemployment claim can be incredibly complex. For those who are not lawyers or accountants, you probably do not have the same understanding of what you need to report as the Department does. And so, you need to ask questions or simply talk to someone about your claim-filing, simply because you may not have any idea that you are doing anything wrong.

The Department, however, presumes that you know everything to file a proper unemployment claim. Do not play this game with the Department and demand to speak with someone about what information you need to file and how you should be filing that information.

Track and report (a) any and all work you do and and (b) any and all income you receive in a week

The formula for determining a person’s unemployment benefit encourages folks to work on a part-time basis when collecting unemployment benefits. Part-time work, however, opens up opportunities for weekly claim-filing mistakes that the Department will pounce on and allege fraud.

Each weekly certification requires you to report your part-time work and income as earned in a given week even though you may not be paid until a following week or even several months later. So, you need to track your hours of work and your earnings independent of your employer, because you need to report this information to the Department before your employer actually pays you.

NOTE: For unemployment purposes, part-time work and wages are when you work less than 32 hours in a week or earn less than $500 that week. As an independent contractor (difficult to qualify for under Wisconsin unemployment law), you must report your independent contractor status and are ineligible for all unemployment benefits when doing more than 15 hours of independent contractor work in a given week. Independent contractor earnings, however, do not count at all against your unemployment benefits.

But, Wisconsin makes the claim-filing process even more complicated because the state requires you to report your part-time income and hours of work according to various kinds of categories of which you may have no knowledge or even lack any awareness.

The Department does not track paid-time off or PTO pay, for instance. But, the Department does want you to report that PTO pay and hours. And, you need to report sick time and pay, vacation time and pay, holiday time and pay, performance bonuses, disability and insurance benefit payments and the work-time included in such payments, and termination or dismissal pay of any kind. So, you need to make legal determinations just like an attorney about how something like PTO pay in your case translates to what the Department wants reported. And, you need to report this hourly information even if you are paid on a part-time salary basis or a part-time commission of some kind.

NOTE: You also need to report any missed hours of work, see Kunze v. City of Stevens Point Transportation, UI Hearing No. 13003015MD, 13003016MD, 13003017MD, and 13003018MD (29 November 2013) (any missed shift for which due notice by the employer was provided constitutes work and wages that need to be reported on each weekly claim certification), which could include missed hours or pay because of illness, missed holiday hours and pay, and even missed vacation hours and pay as well as other kinds of possible pay and work hours. Missing a shift to take a child to a doctor’s appointment constitutes missed work that needs to be reported as if you did not miss that shift.

In other words, there are many, many ways for you to make a mistake on your weekly claim certification. And, as noted ad nauseam here, the Department will consider any mistake you make as equivalent to unemployment fraud and charge you for that alleged fraud. The only way to get any protection from that mistake is get some advice from a Department staffer about how to file a correct claim. Even if that advice is wrong (which it probably will be), you can point out how your mistake was based on that bad advice and so avoid a charge of fraud down the road.

NOTE: In its push to go on-line, the Department has scaled back phone help by limiting access to staffers to only a few days a week and eliminating use of a toll-free number (except when reporting claimant fraud) in lieu of 414-435-7069. Indeed, the Department is making the phone system so difficult to use that you now have to call just to learn when you can call on your designated day.

Of course, the Department will deny ever giving out bad advice. So, having a record of that bad advice will be essential to your defense against the fraud charge that the Department will lodge against you for your claim-filing mistakes.

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