More Department proposals for 2021

At the 18 March 2021 meeting of the Advisory Council, the Department presented its first eight proposals. These first eight proposals included the proposals that the Advisory Council originally approved of in 2019 (but which were not enacted because of the pandemic).

At the 15 April and the 20 May 2021 meetings of the Advisory Council, the Department presented another 18 proposals — D21-09 thru D21-26. Yikes. Here are those proposals, with links to the actual proposals that appeared at the May 2021 Advisory Council meeting.

D21-09, Employee Status solely determined by unemployment law

The Department seeks to amend the definition of employee and self-employment.

The Department proposes to amend sections 108.09(2)(bm) and 108.09(4s) to provide that all issues of unemployment insurance employee status may only be determined under Wisconsin unemployment statutes and rules. This proposal will provide consistency in determining individuals’ eligibility for unemployment benefits and employers’ unemployment insurance tax liability by limiting the employee status inquiry to the provisions of the unemployment insurance law.

D21-09 at 2. The actual proposed changes seem to do little more than re-arrange statutory wording, however. At present, current unemployment law prohibits consideration of licensing requirements or other state or federal law in determining employee status. So, there is a change in wording being proposed, but I cannot determine what substantively is being changed. The Department’s rationale seems to be that administrative law judges are over-turning initial determinations that held claimants to be employees (and so, concluding that the claimants truly were independent contractors) because those administrative law judges were looking to laws outside of unemployment law.

Yet, Wis. Stat. § 108.09(4s) currently holds that (emphasis supplied):

the appeal tribunal shall not take administrative notice of or admit into evidence documents granting operating authority or licenses, or any state or federal laws or federal regulations granting such authority or licenses.

So, the actual goal of this proposed change is unclear at the moment.

D21-10, SUTA dumping

This proposals adds a provision — required by federal law — to prevent employers from re-organizing themselves and thereby reducing their tax rate significantly and restoring a positive account balance as a “new” employer — a practice called SUTA dumping.

SUTA dumping is a major problem that can easily “cost” thousands of dollars (and maybe even tens of thousands) per employer, especially when extended beyond one year. The proposed penalties are a $5,000 forfeiture, a possible $10,000 civil penalty, and possible criminal charges as a class A misdemeanor (up to 9 months in jail and up to a $10,000 fine).

So, these penalties are chump change and unlikely to discourage any employer but the smallest from SUTA dumping. A large employer who might save $70,000 or more in three years will not bat an eye at these proposed penalties.

Moreover, the penalties for claimant concealment are much more severe. Alongside the financial penalties that claimants incur for the claim-filing mistakes, per 2017 Wis. Act 147 the criminal penalties for claimant concealment are:

  • For benefits up to $2,500: An unclassified misdemeanor with a fine up to $10,000, imprisonment up to nine months, or both.
  • For benefits up to $5,000: A Class I felony, for which the penalty is a fine upto $10,000, imprisonment up to three years and six months, or both.
  • For benefits up to $10,000: A Class H felony, for which the penalty is a fine up to $10,000, imprisonment up to six years, or both.
  • For benefits over $10,000: A Class G felony, for which the penalty is a fine up to $25,000, imprisonment up to 10 years, or both

And, unlike claimant concealment, actual and specific intent to commit SUTA dumping needs to be proven. Proposed Wis. Stat. § 108.16(8)(mm)3 will read:

For the purposes of this paragraph and par. (m), “knowingly” means having actual knowledge of or acting with deliberate ignorance of or reckless disregard for the statute violated.

D21-10 at 3. Claimant “intent” for the purpose of unemployment concealment is shown for any claim-filing mistakes by the following factors:

a. Whether the claimant failed to read or follow instructions or other communications of the department related to a claim for benefits.
b. Whether the claimant relied on the statements or representations of persons other than an employee of the department who is authorized to provide advice regarding the claimant’s claim for benefits.
c. Whether the claimant has a limitation or disability and, if so, whether the claimant provided evidence to the department of that limitation or disability.
d. The claimant’s unemployment insurance claims filing experience.
e. Any instructions or previous determinations of concealment issued or provided to the claimant.
f. Any other factor that may provide evidence of the claimant’s intent.

Wis. Stat. § 108.04(11)(g)2 (setting forth a claimant’s duty of care to provide accurate and complete responses to Department inquires).

These standards are hardly comparable. They should be. They need to be.

D21-11, Work-share modifications

Work-share has been one of the few unemployment success stories in Wisconsin during this pandemic. In light of federal changes to work-share programs during the pandemic, this proposal seeks to expand work-share options and flexibility in light of those federal changes so that more employers and employees can take advantage of these benefits.

This proposal is a no-brainer and should have been adopted months ago.

The Department wants to hear about other changes needed to work-share efforts in Wisconsin. Other than a reduction in the complicated paperwork (a universal complaint for work-share), contact me with your suggestions. I will pass them on to the Advisory Council.

D21-12, Secretary waiver of provisions for the sake of funding flexibility

This proposal expands the general savings clause (the Department’s secretary can waive compliance with any specific state requirement should that state requirement be found to conflict with federal law) to also allow the Department secretary to waive requirements that prevent the state from taking full advantage of federal funding opportunities (like immediately waiving the waiting week when the pandemic struck, as the legislative delay costs Wisconsin employers’ millions of dollars).

Given the current actions of the legislature, this proposal is probably dead on arrival no matter what the Advisory Council recommends.

D21-13, Initial tax rates for construction employers

Unemployment taxes have been declining so rapidly in Wisconsin that the initial tax rates for construction employers — one of the few booming industries from before and during the pandemic — are now lower than the initial rates of non-construction new employers.

2021 tax rates   Non-construction   Construction
Payroll<$500,000   3.05%              2.90%
Payroll>$500,000   3.25%              3.10%

D21-13 at 1. Because construction work is generally seasonal work, initial tax rates in construction should in theory be higher than for general, non-construction employers. The Department’s solution is to amend “the initial tax rate for construction employers to be the greater of the initial rate for non-construction employers or the average rate for construction industry employers as determined by the department on each computation date, rounded up to
the next highest rate.” D21-13 at 2.

Until construction work no longer has seasonal layoffs because of winter, this proposal makes sense.

D21-14, Phone hearings prioritized

Prior to the pandemic, the Department closed hearing offices and forced claimants and employers into phone hearings. An outcry ensued, but the pandemic made phone hearings a necessity.

Current regulations, however, still prioritize in-person hearings over hearings by phone. In this proposal, the Department wants:

to amend chapter DWD 140 to provide that, while parties may continue to request in-person hearings, it is the hearing office’s discretion whether to grant that request. The Department also proposes to clarify language in DWD chapter 140 regarding hearing records, Department assistance for people with disabilities at hearings, and to correct minor and technical language in DWD chapter 140.

D21-14 at 2. As currently worded, the proposal simply justifies what the Department wants to do and provides no actual reasons or justification for these changes. For instance, the Department lacks space for in-person hearings because the Department previously closed three out of four hearing offices.

Even more troubling, the substances of the proposed changes is lacking. Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 140 is THE set of regulations for how hearings are conducted. Any changes to this chapter could have long-term repercussions to claimants and employers about what happens at unemployment hearings and their access to the hearing files connected to these cases.

When presenting this proposal, the Department indicated that the changes to DWD 140 are needed as well as to DWD 149 to reflect the Department’s current practices in responding to open records requests. So, it begs the question of what exactly is in conflict between these regulations and the Department’s current hearing practices. Wis. Admin. Code DWD 149.03 provides:

(1)  Claimants and employing units. Except as otherwise provided under s. DWD 140.09, the department shall make the following records available to the following persons upon request:

(a) An unemployment insurance record concerning an individual is available to that individual.

(b) An unemployment insurance record concerning an individual’s work for an employing unit is available to that employing unit.

(c) An unemployment insurance record concerning a determination to which an employing unit is identified as a party of interest under s. 108.09, Stats., is available to that employing unit.

(d) An unemployment insurance record concerning an employing unit’s status or liability under ch. 108, Stats., is available to that employing unit.

In legal circles it is generally understood that phone hearings favor employers, as employer witnesses can gather in one room and share a set of notes during their testimony without an administrative law judge witnessing those notes being passed.

Finally, for comparison, here is a 1998 Department notice (from a 2000 training about unemployment hearings) about opting for a phone hearing. If the Department is going to go forward with this change, it should address these points it put forward in 1998 for why phone hearings are problematic.

D21-15, Camp counselor employer exclusion

Currently, summer camp counselors are generally ineligible to receive unemployment benefits because they are usually full-time students. But, summer camps must still pay unemployment taxes for the wages paid to summer camp counselor.

This proposal applies the federal definition of excluded employment for camp counselors to state law.

The result of this change is that summer camps will no longer pay unemployment taxes for the wages paid to their summer camp counselors. And, some summer camp counselors who are not students may lose the ability to include their summer camp wages in establishing a benefit year.

D21-16, Repeal of drug testing requirements

This proposal repeals the drug testing provisions the Walker administration kept trying to institute. Recall that the drug testing efforts came in three parts: (1) voluntary employer testing and reporting, (2) mandatory testing of claimants based on to-be-determined federally designated occupations for testing, and (3) mandatory testing of claimants based on a future, state-based list of designated occupations. Only the voluntary employer testing and reporting was ever implemented.

The big news here is that as of 31 March 2021, the Department has received 171 drug test reports (either a failed test or failing to take a test) from potential employers. Previously, the Department had reported none or just a couple of voluntary testing reports from employers. In any case, the impact of these 171 voluntary employer reports remains nil. “No claimants have been determined to be ineligible for UI benefits under the pre-employment drug testing statutes and rules and denied benefits because of the employers’ reports of a failed or refused drug test as a condition of an offer of employment.” D21-16 at 1. So, there has been no opportunity for claimants to maintain their eligibility by enrolling a drug treatment program at the state’s expense.

Because employers have no idea of whether a job applicant is receiving or not receiving unemployment benefits OR because employers are failing to provide the necessary drug-testing paperwork and follow the necessary protocols for reporting a drug test OR a combination of these two factors, the voluntary drug testing has been a complete bust. In more than five years, this effort has not led to a single disqualification or enrollment in a drug treatment program. Ending a program that is doing nothing should make sense.

D21-17, Repeal of the substantial fault disqualification

This proposal seeks to repeal the substantial fault disqualification. There are two issues with this proposal, however.

First, the Advisory Council previously rejected substantial fault when it was originally proposed. It was the Joint Finance Committee that went around the Advisory Council and which included substantial fault in the state budget. So, the Advisory Council does not need to approve of this repeal. It was already rejected, and the rejection should be included as a matter of course.

Second, court decisions in Operton v. LIRC, 2017 WI 46, and Easterling v. LIRC, 2017 WI App 18, have limited the scope of substantial fault in important ways from how the Department applies this disqualification. But, the Department continues to ignore those court precedents. Indeed, as of May 2021, I have come across two cases of employees disqualified for substantial fault because of unintentional mistakes where the mistakes in question are nearly identical to the mistakes in Operton (inadvertent job mistakes) and Easterling (unintentional mistakes while attempting to satisfy employer demands).

D21-18, Expansion of the relocating spouse quit exception

This proposal restores this quit exception to allow any claimant who has to quit a job because his or her spouse has to relocate. Prior to 2013, Wisconsin allowed claimants to receive unemployment benefits when they had to relocate because of a spouse transferring to another job for any reason. In proposal D12-19, the Department limited this quit exception to the spouses of military personnel who had to relocate.

So, this proposal restores the expansive nature of this quit exception.

The problem here, like with substantial fault, is that the Advisory Council previously rejected this Department proposal to limit this quit exception to the spouses of military personnel. Here is what the Advisory Council actually agreed to back in 2013. So, this proposed change should be included as a matter of course in the council’s agreed-upon bill.

D21-19, Repeal of the waiting week

The waiting week was enacted as part of the 2011 budget act, 2011 Wis. Act 32 and without any input from the Advisory Council.

The concept of a waiting week exists because state unemployment agencies originally could not act quickly on a claim for benefits, and so a waiting week was needed to give the state agency time to process the necessary paperwork. With the advent of claim-filing by phone, however, that additional time was no longer needed. The waiting week effectively became a vehicle for reducing the total amount of benefits paid out to a claimant, since claimants did not receive any unemployment benefits for the first week of their claim.

The Department estimates that the waiting week costs claimants $26.1 million each year. D21-19 at 3. Given the purpose of unemployment benefits to provide immediate economic stimulus to workers in time of need after losing their jobs, a waiting week makes no sense.

D21-20, Repeal of the lame duck work search and work registration changes

The lame duck laws, see 2017 Wis. Act 370 for the unemployment changes, that were enacted after Scott Walker lost his re-election bid, moved the Department’s work search and work registration requirements from Department regulations and into statutory law. That is, Republicans were so concerned about making sure these obstacles for unemployment eligibility remained in place that they made them statutory rather just a regulation that the new administration might then revise.

So, this proposal restores what existed before the lame duck changes and gives the Department some additional flexibility in how work search and work registration requirements are administered.

D21-21, Repeal of the wage cap on benefit eligibility

Right now, a hard cap of $500 per week is written into unemployment law. This cap was first proposed by the Department in D12-18, which the Advisory Council adopted at their 21 Feb. 2013 meeting.

In light of Wisconsin’s partial wage formula, a claimant with a weekly benefit rate of $370 could in theory have as much as $574 in wages and still qualify for at least $5 in unemployment benefits. D21-21 at 1. In other words, the partial wage formula indicates that anyone with $575 or more in wages would NOT receive any unemployment benefits.

As a consequence, the $500 cutoff actually discourages some work, as any employee who receives $500 or more in wages loses all unemployment benefits. For instance, a person with a WBR of $370 who earns $550 in wages would receive $22 in unemployment benefits that week, if the $500 wage cap was eliminated.

In other states, the gap between earnings and unemployment eligibility is called an “earnings disregard.” In some of these states, a worker who earns just $200 in a week loses unemployment eligibility dollar for dollar, so the earnings disregard in those states is sizable. See Massachusetts, for example, in this table. Because of Wisconsin’s partial wage formula, the earnings disregard in Wisconsin is limited to this $500 wage cap and only applies for claimants receiving the highest weekly benefit rate.

So, at present this $500 wage cap has a very limited effect. But, should the weekly benefit even be increased, it will become a major problem. And, as indicated in the next proposal, Wisconsin now has the second-lowest weekly benefit rate in the mid-west. So, this artificial cap needs to go if Wisconsin is going to raise its weekly benefit rate.

Finally, as noted by the Department, D21-21 at 3, the eligibility ban when working 32 or more hours in a week remains in place.

D21-22, Raising the weekly benefit rate

Currently, Wisconsin has the second-lowest maximum weekly benefit rate in the mid-west.

State   Max. WBR    Max. w/ dependents
IL        $484           $667
IN        $390           $390
IA        $481           $591
MI        $362           $362
MN        $740           $740
OH        $480           $647
WI        $370           $370

A listing of the weekly benefit for all the states is available here.

Note: this data is different from what the Department reports in its proposal, and these numbers are current as of October 2020. These numbers have changed since then. Ohio, for instance, currently has a maximum WBR of $498 and $672 with dependents.

The highest WBR available is in Massachusetts, at $823 ($1,234 with dependents). The second highest is in Washington state at $790.

This proposal sets forth a series of increases in the weekly benefit rate.

  1. For benefits paid for weeks of unemployment beginning on or after January 2, 2022, but before January 1, 2023, the maximum weekly benefit is capped at $409.
  2. For benefits paid for weeks of unemployment beginning on or after January 1, 2023, but before December 31, 2023, the maximum weekly benefit is capped at 50% of the state’s annual average weekly wages.
  3. For benefits paid for weeks of unemployment beginning on or after December 31, 2023, the maximum weekly benefit is capped at 75% of the state’s annual average weekly wages, or the maximum weekly benefit amount from the previous year, whichever is greater.

Wisconsin’s weekly benefit rate relative to the wages being paid in this state has never been all that good and has become essentially a token reimbursement in the last few decades.

History of the weekly benefit rate relative to wages paid in Wisconsin

Using the average weekly Wisconsin wage of $951 in 2019, the maximum WBR in 2023 would be $475, and in 2024 the maximum WBR would be $713. So, this proposal would basically make the maximum weekly benefit rate actually useful and relevant again in Wisconsin.

D21-23, Expanded flexibility in searching for suitable work

Here, the Department proposes two changes. First, the Department wants to expand the canvassing period from six weeks to eleven weeks.

The canvassing period is the time when you can reject a job offer which is a lower grade of skill or at a significantly lower rate of pay (less than 75%) than you had on one or more recent jobs without losing your eligibility for benefits. See Tips for filing for unemployment benefits in Wisconsin for more information about your canvassing period.

Second, the Department proposes expanding the trial time period for quitting a job without being disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits from 30 days to ten weeks (the original time period). The Advisory Council originally approved of the change from ten weeks to 30 days.

This trial time period provides various ways for an employee to still qualify for unemployment benefits when quitting a job regardless of the employee’s actual reason. The main reason found in this category usually is that the job fails to meet established labor market standards (e.g., wages are 25% or less than what is normally paid in that specific labor market for that occupation). But, any reason that would have allowed the employees to refuse the job offer in the first place as well as any reason for quitting the job with good cause applies here. Only the last reason — having good cause for quitting the job — is still available to employees after the trial period has expired.

D21-24, changing the SSDI eligibility ban to an offset

This proposal was previously discussed here, along with the entire history of the Department’s SSDI eligibility ban qua offset. Whether as an eligibility ban or an offset, it still makes no sense. There should be no SSDI offset, just like there should be no SSDI eligibility ban.

Here is hoping the Advisory Council can fix this crazy proposal and end this discrimination against the disabled.

D21-25, Mandatory e-filing for employers

At present, large employers (those with annual unemployment taxes of $10,000 or more) must e-file their reports and e-pay their unemployment taxes.

This proposal would mandate e-filing and e-pay for ALL employers.

The problem is that many one or two person LLCs and other self-employed individuals have no conception of unemployment taxes and the reports that need to be filed. Given the lack of broadband access in the state, this mandate for these small employers is likely difficult to impossible to implement.

Without a broad-based, educational media campaign, this mandatory e-filing will accomplish little more than allowing the Department to levy administrative penalties against small employers who have no idea what is going on and fail to provide their forms and payments via e-file and e-pay. The fact that implementation will be delayed until the Department actually has the technology in place to support this proposal offers little assurance. In short, this proposal should be rejected out-of-hand. After all, those who push for ease-of-use indicate that multiple kinds of access need to be maintained and fully supported. So, mandatory e-filing and e-pay actually runs counter to making unemploymeny more modern and easier-to-use.

D21-26, New worker mis-classification penalties

This proposal seeks to replace the token employer penalties for mis-classifying construction workers (1) with penalties that at least some have some dentures to them and (2) to expand this issue to all industries rather than limiting it to just construction.

The Advisory Council at the urging of Mark Reihl, then the head of the carpenters’ union in Wisconsin (and now division director for unemployment) originally approved the original penalties proposed by the labor caucus.

  1. $500 civil penalty for each employee who is misclassified, but not to exceed $7,500 per incident.
  2. $1,000 criminal fine for each employee who is misclassified, subject to a maximum fine of $25,000 for each violation, but only if the employer has previously been assessed a civil penalty for misclassified workers.
  3. $1,000 civil penalty for each individual coerced to adopt independent contractor status, up to $10,000 per calendar year.

D21-36 at 1.

With this proposal, the Department explains:

The proposal removes the $7,500 and $10,000 limitations on these penalties and provides that the penalties double for each act occurring after the date of the first determination of a violation. The proposal also removes the limitations on the types of employers to which the penalties apply, allowing them to be assessed against any type of employer that violates the above prohibitions.

D21-26 at 4.

BUT, the intent that needs to be shown for these mis-classification penalties remains unchanged. Per Wis. Stat. § 108.221(1)(b):

(b) The department shall consider the following nonexclusive factors in determining whether an employer described under par. (a) knowingly and intentionally provided false information to the department for the purpose of misclassifying or attempting to misclassify an individual who is an employee of the employer as a nonemployee:

1. Whether the employer was previously found to have misclassified an employee in the same or a substantially similar position.
2. Whether the employer was the subject of litigation or a governmental investigation relating to worker misclassification and the employer, as a result of that litigation or investigation, received an opinion or decision from a federal or state court or agency that the subject position or a substantially similar position should be classified as an employee.

Under this standard, it is well nigh impossible to charge an employer with mis-classification for a first-time violation. On the other hand, claimants are given no such leeway for their claim-filing mistakes. As noted above with proposal D21-10 (SUTA dumping), claimants who have filed for unemployment insurance previously and been given notice to read the claimants’ handbook are presumed to know everything about how to file an unemployment claim and to not make any claim-filing mistakes. But, here, employers are not liable for mis-classification (a far more serious problem economically) until after their first instance of mis-classification. In other words, these mis-classification penalties can only apply to employers when prosecuted a second time for the same mis-classification. Having two bites of the apple sure is nice.

Either employers should be held to the same claim-filing standards as employees, or the intent requirements used against employees for their claim-filing mistakes needs to be seriously redone.

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