Absenteeism decision excludes zero-tolerance policy as misconduct

Today’s appeals court decision in DWD v. LIRC (hereafter referred to as Beres), Appeal No. 2016-AP-1365 (recommended for publication) holds that an employer’s absenteeism policy of one discharge in the first 90 days of a probationary period does NOT qualify as per se misconduct.

In this case, the employee landed a job at a nursing home. Flu-like symptoms, however, led her to miss work, and the employer let her go because she missed a day of work during her 90-day probationary period. When the employee filed a claim for unemployment benefits, the Department found misconduct because she violated the employer’s zero-tolerance absenteeism policy. Per Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e) (emphasis supplied):

Absenteeism by an employee on more than 2 occasions within the 120-day period before the date of the employee’s termination, unless otherwise specified by his or her employer in an employment manual of which the employee has acknowledged receipt with his or her signature . . .

The Department has concluded that this italicized portion of this statute allows employers to decide for themselves how many absences will constitute misconduct for unemployment purposes.

NOTE: This position is a stunning development in contradiction of the rest of unemployment law that presumes employee eligibility for unemployment benefits and establishes the economic importance of unemployment benefits for addressing macro-economic issues in the state’s economy. The Department’s stance means that employers gain the unilateral ability under this provision to determine for themselves when an employee commits misconduct for unemployment purposes.

The Commission reversed, holding that the more than two absences in 120 days provisions without notice sets a floor for a finding of misconduct. The employee was not responsible for her illness, the Commission noted, and so she missed work through no fault of her own — the classic formulation about when employees are eligible for unemployment benefits.

After a circuit court over-turned the Commission’s decision and agreed with the Department, the Commission appealed the case to the appeals court. The appeals court agreed with the Commission that its interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e) was more reasonable than the Department’s. The appeals court in Beres at ¶¶18-20 explained:

The purpose of unemployment insurance benefits is to serve as a bridge for employees from one job to the next or “to cushion the effect of unemployment,” absent “actions or conduct evincing such willful or wanton disregard of an employer’s interests.” Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5); Boynton Cab, 237 Wis. at 258-59.

An example illustrates the reasonableness of LIRC’s interpretation that Beres’ actions did not rise to the level to deny benefits. Assume Beres was found to be in a tavern during her scheduled shift and, when called, lied about being sick. At the opposite end of the spectrum, assume that Beres was involved in a serious car accident within two hours of the start of her shift due to no fault of her own and required hospitalization. In both of these examples, Beres would be in violation of [the employer’s] attendance policy. LIRC’s interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5) and (5)(e) allows an examination of the employee’s conduct in relation to both the employer’s policy as well as the policy that unemployment benefits should only be denied if the employee engages in actions constituting misconduct or substantial fault. The first example would likely qualify as misconduct under both § 108.04(5) and [the employer’s] written attendance policy, whereas the second example is a technical violation of [the employer’s] attendance policy, but is not an act of misconduct or substantial fault.

Employers are free to adopt a “zero-tolerance” attendance policy and discharge employees for that reason, but not every discharge qualifies as misconduct for unemployment insurance purposes. As our supreme court explained, “The principle that violation of a valid work rule may justify discharge but at the same time may not amount to statutory ‘misconduct’ for unemployment compensation purposes has been repeatedly recognized by this court.” Casey, 71 Wis.2d at 819-20. Similarly, this court found in Operton that employers have “the right to have high expectations of its employees and also [have] the right to discharge an employee for not meeting their expectations,” but we concluded that high expectations were insufficient to deny unemployment benefits. See Operton, 369 Wis.2d 166, ¶31.

A few additional comments about this decision are warranted. First, the appeals court gets the legislative history of this new absenteeism provision wrong. In Beres at ¶2, the appeals court describes the history this way:

Prompted by concerns within the employer community that eligibility for unemployment benefits was too generous, the legislature, in 2013, made wholesale changes to the unemployment benefit law, including modifying the absenteeism ineligibility criteria from “5 or more” absences without notice in a twelve-month period to “more than 2” absences without notice in a 120-day period, “unless otherwise specified by his or her employer in an employment manual.Compare Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5g)(c) (2011-12), with § 108.04(5)(e) (emphasis added). It is this final clause that is at the heart of the dispute.

In actuality, the concerns prompted by the employer community were only what the Department noted when it — on its own initiative — originated an extensive re-write of unemployment law. See D12-01. The Advisory Council actually rejected these proposed changes and instead put forward the following changes to the then existing absenteeism provisions in Wis. Stat. § 108.05(5g):

“(5g) DISCHARGE FOR FAILURE TO NOTIFY EMPLOYER OF ABSENTEEISM OR TARDINESS.

(a) If an employee is discharged for failing to notify his or her employer of absenteeism or tardiness that becomes excessive, and the employer has complied with the requirements of par. (d) with respect to that employee, the employee is ineligible to receive benefits until 6 weeks have elapsed since the end of the week in which the discharge occurs and the employee earns wages after the week in which the discharge occurs equal to at least 6 times the employee’s weekly benefit rate under s. 108.05 (1) in employment or other work covered by the unemployment insurance law of any state or the federal government. For purposes of requalification, the employee’s weekly benefit rate shall be the rate that would have been paid had the discharge not occurred.

(b) For purposes of this subsection, tardiness becomes excessive if an employee is late for 6 4 or more scheduled workdays in the 12 month 120 day period preceding the date of the discharge without providing adequate notice to his or her employer.

(c) For purposes of this subsection, absenteeism becomes excessive if an employee is absent for 5 2 or more scheduled workdays in the 12-month 120 day period preceding the date of the discharge without providing adequate notice to his or her employer.

(d) 1. The requalifying requirements under par. (a) apply only if the employer has a written policy on notification of tardiness or absences that:

a. Defines what constitutes a single occurrence of tardiness or absenteeism;

b. Describes the process for providing adequate notice of tardiness or absence, and, regarding tardiness, which gives the employee a reasonable time for providing notice and which at least allows the employee the opportunity to provide notice as soon as practically possible; and

c. Notifies the employee that failure to provide adequate notice of an absence or tardiness may lead to discharge.

2. The employer shall provide a copy of the written policy under subd. 1. to each employee and shall have written evidence that the employee received a copy of that policy.

3. The employer must have given the employee at least one warning concerning the employee’s violation of the employer’s written policy under subd. 1. within the 12 month period preceding the date of the discharge.

4. The employer must apply the written policy under subd. 1. uniformly to all employees of the employer.

(e) The department shall charge to the fund’s balancing account the cost of any benefits paid to an employee that are otherwise chargeable to the account of an employer that is subject to the contribution requirements under ss. 108.17 and 108.18 if the employee is discharged by that employer and par. (a) applies.

(em) If an employee is not disqualified under this subsection, the employee may nevertheless be subject to the disqualification under sub. (5). [general misconduct law]

As obvious, this proposal is not what ended up being enacted. SeeAdvisory Council Meeting — 1 April 2013” (council declined to adopt proposed substantial fault standard but recommended adding various examples of misconduct). The Department, however, never acted on the Advisory Council’s recommendations. Instead, on 29 May 2013 the Joint Finance Committee added the rejected substantial fault and misconduct standards to the budget bill that eventually became 2013 Wis Act 20. SeeAdvisory Council — 2 May 2013 meeting — and legislative actions today” and “JFC UI amendments” (JFC motion to amend budget bill included various unemployment financing provisions and rejected substantial fault, misconduct, and quit provisions; DWD drafted bills that eventually became 2013 Wis. Act 36 never included the Advisory Council’s agreed-upon misconduct and quit proposals). Accordingly, these changes to unemployment law went against the express recommendations of the Advisory Council.

Second, the appeals court reaches its holding with either a de novo or due weight standard of deference. Beres at n.5. The proposed elimination of LIRC will likely mean that the Department replaces the Commission to whom courts defer on unemployment matters.

Third, a dissent in Beres at ¶¶22-31 essentially accepts the Department’s position that employers get to enact their own misconduct standards per this new absenteeism provision.

Given this dissent and how this argument, if accepted, essentially would undo unemployment eligibility in Wisconsin, a certiorari petition from the Department to the Wisconsin Supreme Court is likely, and I suspect such a petition will be accepted.

LIRC’s elimination

Governor Walker’s proposed FY2018-FY2019 budget includes the startling elimination of the Labor and Industry Review Commission.

Previously in 2015, DWD raided the Commission’s budget and had its general counsel demoted and replaced.

This attack was apparently not enough. All sources available to me indicate that DWD’s unemployment division pushed for the Commission’s elimination, and Governor Walker acceded to DWD’s demands (more on this issue below).

The agency description document reveals basic numbers about this elimination: the Commission is only funded for six months into the next budget year, and so the Commission will cease to exist on midnight, 31 December 2017. More than 26 staffers will be let go, including three Commissioners (only two currently appointed, as Commissioner Jordahl saw the writing on the wall and jumped to the Public Service Commission). As almost all the Commission’s funding is from federal sources or specific fees, only $265,500 in actual state tax revenue is being saved by the Commission’s elimination.

The budget bill, AB64, has the details about what is happening. For unemployment, see pp.663-74 of the bill.

In general, the budget bill makes a division head (who is a political appointee serving at the pleasure of the governor) as the appellate review authority in place of the Commission.

In this proposed budget bill, these division heads will take over for the Commission effective on July 1st of this year. In other words, on July 1st or afterwards any appeals filed with the Commission will no longer be valid. As a result, these division heads will need to provide notice about appeal rights to parties in workers’ compensation, equal rights/discrimination, and unemployment cases perhaps as early as June 1st. And, they will need to do so regardless of when the budget bill is actually passed.

Neither the workers’ compensation or equal rights divisions have staff attorneys on hand to handle these appeals. In 2015 (the latest year case load data is available), there were 214 workers’ compensation cases filed with the Commission, 230 decisions issued, and 32 cases appealed to court that the Commission had to defend. As there were 422 workers’ compensation decisions by administrative law judges that year, over 50% of those decisions were appealed to the Commission in 2015.

For equal rights cases that same year, there were 77 appeals filed with the Commission, and it issued 94 decisions, of which 19 were appealed to court and hence defended by the Commission. The 239 decisions by administrative law judges include many kinds of cases for which there is no appeal to the Commission (such as fair employment or medical leave cases), only appeal to circuit court. So, the percentage of discrimination cases appealed to the Commission is probably much higher than the 32% suggested by this raw data and is probably close to 50% of the cases for which appeal rights to the Commission exist.

In 2015, there were 59 appeals of employer tax cases to the Commission. The Commission issued 49 decisions that year, and three of those were appealed into circuit court. Administrative law judges issued 397 employer tax decisions that year.

The unemployment numbers are eye-popping for claimants. Unemployment appeals involving claimants numbered 1,735 in 2015 (~144 a month), and the Commission issued 1,773 decisions (~147 a month). Forty-eight of these cases were appealed to circuit court. Administrative law judges issued 18,172 claimant benefit decisions that year.

None of these division heads is loosing any of their current job duties, and there appears to be no provisions for hiring additional staff to handle their new appellate review duties. So, appellate review by division heads will have to occur when they find the time. As obvious from these numbers, that review will be perfunctory at best. For workers’ compensation and discrimination cases, the budget bill is simply shifting the responsibility for review into circuit and appellate courts. These division administrators are likely to rubber stamp all appeals that arrive on their desks (at least initially). Of course, costs to employers and employees associated with this move to court review will be increased, because they will need to pay for attorneys and filing fees after going through the motions for the perfunctory division review. As a result, the number of cases being appealed will likely decline because employers and employees simply cannot afford the additional costs that court review entails. In other words, injustices and basic mistakes at the hearing stage will likely go uncorrected and lawyers will have fewer paying clients.

The unemployment review process represents a slightly different picture from the other agencies. DWD’s unemployment division already has six to eight staff attorneys available to it. Indeed, it is these attorneys who prosecute employer tax cases, who conduct training of administrative law judges, and who occasionally prosecute claimants in unemployment concealment cases. These staff attorneys will most likely take on the task of reviewing the 1,700+ division appeals that land on Joe Handrick’s desk. So, employers will face an attorney prosecuting the tax cases against them and then having that same attorney or a co-worker of that attorney reviewing the merits of any appeal. Indeed, the same DWD attorney who lost a decision before an administrative law judge could appeal that lost decision and then conduct or advise on the division review.

NOTE: under this budget bill, DWD also retains the ability to appeal any decision of the division administrator to circuit court. DWD, in essence, can appeal itself. Huh?

Recall that the Commission was created as an independent agency in the late 1970s. Previously, the Commission managed the entire Department of Industry, Labor, and Human Services (DWD’s previous incarnation) and also handled appellate review of discrimination, workers’ compensation, and unemployment cases. At the time, there were concerns raised about staff attorneys and administrative law judges who were involved in cases having a hand in the appellate review of those cases by the Commission, even though at that time there was a separate division dedicated to appellate review. To address those concerns, in part, the Commission and the staff section dedicated to appellate review were separated and made into a distinct agency. In this way, the Commission would be insulated from political concerns and improper communications among attorneys who were connected to the parties in a case.

As obvious, the proposed budget bill reverses this change and does so without any of the protections needed for keeping Department attorneys who handle a case before an administrative law judge or who advise that judge about how to handle cases on a certain topic from also having a voice in the appellate review of that case. Furthermore, without additional staff, this proposal essentially makes the Department’s concerns about how a case should be resolved of primary importance. After all, cases have to be decided in a timely manner, and the increased case loads from this change will focus attorney’s attention pretty much on the Department’s own substantive goals rather than on the concerns of the parties for a fair and impartial hearing free of any thumbs on the scales.

And, this thumb on the scales leads to why the Commission is being eliminated in the first place. My sources indicate that the unemployment division of DWD is furious with the Commission because it has not accepted the Department’s push to charge claimants’ simple mistakes with concealment. The Commission continues to follow the statutory requirements that for the Department to demonstrate claimant concealment the Department must present evidence that the claimant made a mistake on his or her weekly claim certification and that the claimant understood or knew by making that mistake she or he would get extra unemployment benefits beyond what he or she should have received.

NOTE: the purported rationale for the Commission’s elimination is to get the average age of the Commission’s pending unemployment decisions at or below 40 days. That is, the Commission on average should issue an unemployment decision within 40 days of the appeal. Through September of 2016, the average age of the Commission’s unemployment cases was 37 days. So, the Commission is ALREADY meeting this requirement. See p.2 of the agency description document.

Here is a run-down of some of the concealment issues the Department wants over-turned:

  • The Commission refuses to accept financial need as a reason for finding a claimant intended to steal unemployment benefits (unemployment benefits are by their very nature intended to address a financial need). Wallenkamp v. Arby’s Restaurants, UI Hearing No. 13607281MW and 13607282MW (15 May 2014), aff’d DWD v. LIRC, 367 Wis.2d 749, 877 N.W.2d 650 (2 February 2016); Gussert v. Springhetti Landscaping and DWD, UI Hearing Nos. 16400598AP-16400609AP (27 January 2017).
  • The Commission refuses to find concealment for non-reported wages when claimants subsequently report those wages a few weeks later. Bilton v. H & R Block Eastern Enterprises, Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 13605766MW and 13605682MW (9 Jan. 2014); Perlongo v. Joey’s Seafood & Grill, UI Hearing Nos. 13610060MW & 13610061MW (22 July 2014).
  • The Commission continues to find that an October 2012 transformation of a weekly claim certification question into a compound question was confusing and did not warrant a finding of concealment for mistaken claims based on that confusion (beginning in week 43 of 2012, the week ending 27 October 2012, Question No. 4 was modified from “Did you work?” to “During the week, did you work or did you receive or will you receive sick pay, bonus pay or commission?”). Harris v. Arandell Corp., UI Hearing Nos. 13606535MW and 13606536MW (9 Jan. 2014); Henning v. Visiting Angels, UI Hearing Nos. 13606277MW and 13606278MW (9 Jan. 2014); Chao v. Eagle Movers Inc., UI Hearing No. 13607069M and 13607071MW (17 Jan. 2014); Maurer v. Manpower US Inc., UI Hearing No. 13607416MW and 13607417MW (28 Jan. 2014); Wallenkamp v. Arby’s Restaurants, UI Hearing No. 13607281MW and 13607282MW (15 May 2014), aff’d DWD v. LIRC, 367 Wis.2d 749, 877 N.W.2d 650 (2 February 2016); Audwin Short, UI Hearing No. 14600693MW (10 July 2014); Smith v. Journal Sentinel, Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 13610174MW (31 July 2014); Jackson v. Securitas Security Services, Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 14606875MW and 14606876MW (9 June 2015).
  • The Commission continues to raise questions about the conduct of administrative law judges who take it upon themselves to chastise claimants for their presumed concealment rather than hearing the evidence as presented and presuming claimant eligibility as the law requires. Henning v. Visiting Angels, UI Hearing Nos. 13606277MW and 13606278MW (9 Jan. 2014); Fera v. South East Cable LLC, UI Hearing Nos. 13607375MW (31 July 2014); Vasquez v. Fedex Smartpost Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 14602073MW and 14602074MW (24 September 2014).
  • The Commission continues to find that claimants who are confused about what needs to be reported are just making mistakes and not committing concealment. Hollett v. Douglas Shafler, UI Hearing Nos. 13003690MW and 130003691MW (8 May 2014); Dabo v. Personalized Plus Home Health, UI Hearing No. 14609522MW and 14609523MW (16 April 2015); O’Neill v. Riteway Bus Service Inc., UI Hearing No. 15600518MW and 15600519MW (28 May 2015); Gussert v. Springhetti Landscaping and DWD, UI Hearing Nos. 16400598AP-16400609AP (27 January 2017).
  • The Commission continues to find that claimants who are confused about their status as employees or independent contractors are not committing concealment. Haebig v. News Publishing Co. Inc. of Mt. Horeb, UI Hearing Nos. 13000910MD, 13000911MD, and 13000912MD (31 January 2014); David Mumm, UI Hearing No. 13003988MD (28 Feb. 2014); Martin R. Lash, UI Hearing No. 13403269AP (30 May 2014).
  • The Commission refuses to give the Department three chances to prove concealment against claimants. Terry v. Jane Schapiro, UI Hearing Nos. 14601971MW and 14601972MW (12 Sept. 2014).
  • The Commission refuses to find concealment for claimants who fail to report wages they do not know about when they file the weekly certifications. Bilton v. H&R Block Eastern Enterprises Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 13605766MW and 13605682MW (9 January 2014).
  • The Commission refuses to find concealment for claimants who mistakenly report their earnings when received rather than when earned. Waoh-Tobin v. Banana Republic, UI Hearing No. 16602900MW (18 October 2016).
  • The Commission even refuses to allow a finding of concealment when there is no information in the record about whether the employee worked any specific weeks, received any wages in those weeks, filed possible claims for those weeks, and then possibly provided information on those non-existent claims that were somehow mistaken from the unknown work and wages allegedly done. Fera v. South East Cable LLC, UI Hearing Nos. 13607375MW (31 July 2014).

The Department disagrees with the Commission on all of these concealment issues. So, the Department has decided to have the Commission eliminated and anoint itself as the Commission’s replacement. Anyone interested in the impartial rule of law should be aghast at this development. Review will by design be done by political appointees whose job is to accomplish the political objectives of the governor who appointed them.

If this change goes forward, no one — not employer nor employee — should expect a fair hearing in any DWD case.

The problems in unemployment matters will appear almost immediately. First and foremost, the Commission is being eliminated because it disagrees with the Department about concealment issues. So, the message is clear and direct that disagreement with the Department puts a person’s job in jeopardy. When the Department can eliminate an independent agency, administrative law judges certainly will understand that they must do what the Department wants or face similar elimination.

In workers’ compensation and equal rights cases, the political influence arising from division review will take a few months or perhaps even a year to make itself felt. But, it will be obvious to all at some point that the administrative law judges in these areas of law are following a requirement that exists outside of the hearing itself. Just as private arbitration has been rightly criticized as favoring repeat players over one-time complainants, so too will administrative law judges find themselves knowing how their bosses want cases decided and acting on that knowledge in order to keep their employment. After all, the division administrator will get to declare in every appeal what his or her opinion on the issues are. And, certainly any case that has political repercussions will be decided by those politics rather than the merits. These division administrators are political appointees, after all, who serve at the pleasure of the governor. As a result, the governor is free to inquire of them about how an appeal will be decided and inform that division administrator of the outcome the governor desires.

[UPDATE 7 March 2017: added citations to Gussert case regarding discussion of concealment cases the Department wants overturned.]

“Substantial” changes to substantial fault

Last week, the Appeals Court issued a decision in Operton v. LIRC that significantly changes how the Labor and Industry Review Commission and the Department of Workforce Development have been applying the substantial fault disqualification put into affect in 2014 by the Legislature over the rejection of the Advisory Council.

The Commission had previously held that substantial fault equals negligence and that the only way to avoid disqualification for a work-related mistake was for the claimant to demonstrate he or she lacked the skills or equipment to do the required work or that there was no prior warning from the employer about avoiding the mistake at issue. Operton significantly changes what employees need to show about their alleged lack of skills or whether their mistakes were inadvertent or not.

The case arose from a Madison unemployment clinic client that Marilyn Townsend took on. She and her partner, Fred Wade, made a crafty, inside attack into what substantial fault means and broke it apart from within. The appeals court held in Operton that: (1) some kind of employee intent behind the mistakes at issue were necessary to show that the mistakes were more than inadvertent and (2) employer warnings did not automatically transform an inadvertent mistake into an intentional act. As a result, accidental qua inadvertent actions should not disqualify claimants any more.

NOTE: Accidents that cause substantial damage to an employer’s property, however, can still qualify as misconduct under another change passed by the legislature over the rejection of that change by the Advisory Council. See Hamson v. Ozark Motion Lines, UI Hearing No. 14004168MD (5 March 2015).

As noted previously, substantial fault led to sharp decline in benefit payments. Given how important unemployment benefits are to those who need to pay rent and buy food, this decision should have a significant impact for many. But, that impact might only play out for those realizing they need to appeal initial denials of their benefit claims. As has emerged with how the Department applied concealment law the past several years, the Department will simply ignore legal precedents with which it disagrees and then re-write the law to match the outcome it desired.

UPDATE (19 Sept. 2016): After numerous legislators wrote the Advisory Council in a letter dated 1 April 2013 containing 33 proposed changes to unemployment law, the Department drafted a table detailing these proposals relative to the Department proposals that the council had before it already. See alsoAdvisory Council Meeting — 18 April 2013” (describing events of the April 18th Advisory Council meeting and linking to certain documents relevant to this meeting, including the April 1st letter and the DWD table). In this table, the Department projects missed savings of $17 million through the substantial fault and new misconduct disqualifications that the Advisory Council had declined to adopt. No explanation is available regarding why this amount differs from the earlier $19.2 million figure in the February 2013 version of D12-01. As indicated here, the financial impact of substantial fault has actually been much greater: between $67 to $64 million.

 

Letter to Governor Walker

In light of the Senate passage of AB819 on Tuesday of this week, I am sending a letter to Governor Walker urging him to line-item veto four provisions in the bill.

Dear Governor Walker:

I represent in my legal practice numerous employees and employers in unemployment law matters, and I urge you to line-item veto various provisions in AB819.

The provisions at issue consist of proposals by the Department of Workforce Development (“DWD” or “Department”) that create marked, unpredictable, and undesirable changes in unemployment law for the employees and employers of Wisconsin.

Changes to the definition of unemployment concealment

Sections 18 and 19 of the bill essentially make claimants strictly liable for their claim-filing mistakes. The proposed changes state that concealment is intentional but then disclaim that the Department does not have to prove that a claimant has such an intent. Furthermore, the proposed changes specify ways for a claimant to show no concealment that are so limited or specific that they essentially mean that concealment will be presumed.

This strict liability standard creates due process issues in unemployment law as well as significant problems for any criminal sanctions against claimants for actual concealment. The implications in criminal cases are especially problematic. While the intent requirement for concealment is being removed, criminal prosecutions for unemployment concealment still need mens rea to be shown. Because the mens rea is being administratively presumed rather then proven, claimants who commit actual concealment could likely avoid criminal prosecution for their fraudulent acts in light of this missing mens rea.

Creating a slush fund for Department expenditures

Sections 83-87 of the bill creates a fund for perpetually funding the Department’s program integrity efforts. This funding mechanism, however, lacks any criteria regarding this spending or legislative oversight and so allows for Department hiring and expenditures that are arbitrary. Accordingly, this program is the antithesis of small government .

Re-doing the prohibition on receiving unemployment benefits when receiving Social Security Disability Income (“SSDI”) benefits

Sections 20-25 of the bill re-write the prohibition on receiving unemployment benefits when already receiving SSDI benefits. An earlier and similar prohibition was enacted as part of 2013 Wis. Act 36. The Labor and Industry Review Commission (“LIRC” or “Commission”) initially held that the original prohibition only applied for the week when the claimant received his or her SSDI benefit check. Four circuit courts, however, reversed the Commission’s reasoning. As a result, there is now no legal need for re-writing this prohibition.

Furthermore, this new prohibition will, pursuant to section 103 of the bill, be retroactive to January 2014, the same time when the original prohibition became effective. Because of this retroactive application, this new prohibition creates a constitutional problem that will lead to a new round of litigation for the three to five claimants who received a few hundred dollars of unemployment benefits before the Commission decisions regarding the first prohibition were over-turned. The Department will end up spending thousands of dollars in litigation expenses and staff hours over a few hundred dollars in unemployment benefits. Since the first prohibition is now being enforced, there is simply no legal or economic need for this second retroactive prohibition.

Changing the procedures for obtaining review of a LIRC decision in circuit court

Sections 54 and 55 of the bill substantially alter the process, venue, and parties involved in appeals of Commission decisions. Among these proposed changes, the Department will have the right to file unemployment appeals in any county it chooses regardless of where employees or employers reside. Furthermore, because these changes presume that any party in an unemployment case risks default judgment when not answering a complaint, employers will need to file answers in claimant appeals of Commission decisions. Since Wisconsin requires any company to have an attorney representing it in court, employers will have to spend several hundred dollars for an attorney to file an answer on their behalf. Right now, employers can rely on the Commission to defend these cases and have no need for separate representation and the filing of answers.

The Commission tried to discuss these changes with the Department and the Advisory Council but was ignored. Without a voice in the process, the Commission formally opposed these changes at public hearings for this bill.

There are notable improvements in unemployment law in this bill. For instance, the provisions for protecting reimbursable employers from identity theft in section 73 of the bill are useful and well-done.

But, the four provisions mentioned here create confusion and legal complications about what unemployment law means and how to apply it. Please line-item veto these provisions.

Update on UI legislation

Advisory Council Bill AB819
Yesterday, the state senate passed the bill and messaged it to Governor Walker for his signature. This law consists of the following proposals:

  • A second SSDI prohibition, D15-01, to replace the current prohibition was approved in April 2015 and back-dated in May 2015. But, after the Department started winning the court cases challenging the old SSDI prohibition (see this post for the details), this proposal disappeared from the Department’s legislative draft at the council’s September 2015 meeting. But, after the Labor and Industry Review Commission ruled in November 2015 that departmental error had occurred when appeal tribunals (but not the Commission) had originally ruled in favor of claimants regarding dual receipt of SSDI and UI benefits (and so no repayment of UI benefits previously received was proper), this proposal re-emerged at the November 2015 council meeting in the Department’s legislative drafts. Why? This second SSDI prohibition is back-dated to January 2014, the effective date of the original SSDI prohibition.
  • D15-04 sets up essentially a backup insurance program for reimbursable employers who get their unemployment accounts swindled by identity fraud (and so have little to no hope of ever recovering the stolen benefits). The final recommendation from the council was for reimbursable employers to be taxed initially in order to create a fund of $1 million for covering themselves against identity fraud, essentially the second option of the three presented.
  • D15-05 corrects a hole in the statutes that accidentally left LLPs out of the definition of employer (see also this DWD memo on this issue).
  • The Advisory Council approved the Department’s appeals modernization proposal, D15-06, at the 7 January 2016 meeting. LRB draft language was prepped soon thereafter. Perhaps the most significant change in this proposal — notice by Internet in place of postal mail — has NOT received any discussion of comment from council members, however.
  • Proposed changes to the definition of claimant concealment in D15-08 are described in this previous post and described in a Department memo (discussed in this post), Additional criminal penalties for concealment in AB533 passed the Assembly but has yet to be passed by the Senate. To see what all the fuss is about, take a look at this January 21st Assembly Committee on Public Benefit Reform hearing regarding AB533 and other UI bills or read this LIRC memo on the proposed concealment changes. You can see and hear testimony against these concealment changes via this previous post.
  • Technical changes in D15-09 will allow the Department to distinguish able and available determinations from separation determinations.
  • D15-10 eliminates the publication of the claimant benefit tables within the statutes.
  • Major changes to the process for getting unemployment decisions reviewed in circuit court are set forth in D15-11. These changes were previously described here and here. The Labor and Industry Review Commission opposed these changes, which essentially reverses the 2016 Appeals Court decision in DWD v. LIRC.
  • D15-12 allows the same protocols for unemployment taxes in regards to fiscal agents in adult care to apply to fiscal agents in child care situations.
  • D15-13 ends the sunset date in 2034 for the program integrity fund (i.e., the fund for receiving some of the monies from concealment enforcement) since the Department now expects concealment monies to continue in perpetuity. See the next two proposals for why.
  • The Department’s proposals for a program integrity slush fund, D15-14 and D15-15.

Labor and Management Proposals
The Advisory Council bill also includes management and labor proposals.

On the management side, there will be significant changes to what will be considered suitable work:

  • During the first six weeks of a job search, suitable work that a claimant MUST accept will be those jobs that (1) do not have a lower grade of skill than one or more of his or her most recent jobs and (2) have had an hourly wage that is 75 percent or more of what the claimant previously earned in his or her most recent, highest paying job.
  • After the first six weeks, suitable work means any work the claimant is capable of performing regardless of prior experience, skills, or training, as long as the wages for that job are above the lowest quartile wage-level in the claimant’s relevant labor market.

Once a job offer is considered suitable work for a claimant, then the claimant only has good cause for declining the job offer if the claimant’s personal safety is at risk, the claimant’s sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with the work, the work entails an unreasonable commuting distance, or some other compelling reason makes accepting the offer unreasonable. These changes to what will be considered suitable work will also apply to those who tentatively accept a job and then quit within the first thirty days.

In addition, this accepted management proposal will either eliminate unemployment eligibility entirely for anyone receiving temporary or partial workers’ compensation benefits or mandate offsets against UI benefits for those receiving these kind of workers’ compensation benefits (the specific type of workers’ compensation benefit being received leads to the different kinds of treatment). In other words, the SSDI prohibition is being expanded to workers’ compensation benefits. Also, anyone making a mistake in how they report their specific workers’ compensation benefits will, under the new on-line filing system, likely face a concealment charge for his or her mistake in reporting the kind of workers’ compensation benefits he or she is receiving.

These management-sponsored changes will take effect four weeks after enactment.

The labor proposals that the council agreed to include:

  • repealing the mis-classification prohibitions in workers’ compensation and fair employment law,
  • creating an administrative penalty for mis-classification for unemployment purposes of $500 per employee (capped at $7,500) when construction employers (and only construction employers) knowingly and intentionally provide false information to the Department (NOTE: compare this definition with the proposed changes to claimant concealment) for the purpose of misclassifying or attempting to mis-classify an employee,
  • fining employees in painting and sheetrock work $1,000 per incident (capped at $10,000 per calendar year) when coerced into accepting non-employee status for unemployment purposes, and
  • fining construction employers $1,000 per employee (with a maximum of $25,000) for subsequent violations as well as possible referral for criminal prosecution.

These mis-classification changes will take effect six months after passage.

Budget Bill Fixes
The LIRC funding fix bill, discussed here, was enacted as 2015 Wisconsin Act 194.

The call in the budget bill for the Department to create suitable work rules for claimants has been eliminated by the management-sponsored changes to suitable work described above.

Other unemployment-related legislation
A bill to address an NLRB decision about frachisors and franchisees was signed into law as 2015 Wisconsin Act 203. I previously noted that:

unemployment is not mentioned once in the [Browning-Ferris Industries decision this law is intended to undo], so the applicability and purpose — let alone its effectiveness — of the state law changes in this proposed legislation are muddled at best. And, as DWD notes in its memo, the changes could be extremely problematic for some Wisconsin employers.

A re-writing of real estate agent law in Wisconsin has been enacted via 2015 Wisconsin Act 258. The original bill, AB456, was intended, in part, to remove real estate agents completely from unemployment coverage. Even though real estate services are not considered covered employment for unemployment purposes, agents who qualify for unemployment benefits through other work they do outside of real estate sales found themselves and their brokerages being brought into unemployment hearings whenever there was a change in their relationship. In short, even though there is no covered employment or even an employer, the real estate agent is still treated as an employee who must either quit with good cause or be discharged without misconduct or substantial fault from a brokerage firm in order to keep receiving unemployment benefits connected to non-real estate work. The legislation as-passed leaves this process in place. Real estate agents, however, will be excluded as employees from workers compensation coverage, workplace discrimination law, and other workplace laws. See Section 174 of the new Act.

Previously enacted legislation
2015 Wisconsin Act 86 contained the following three Department proposals:

  • D15-02 is a house-keeping change that allows the Department to issue determinations against out-of-state employers in combined wage claims for being at fault for an erroneous benefit payment to a claimant.
  • D15-03 applies the Treasury offset program to employers, as described previously in this post.
  • A renewed work-share program, D15-07.

UI bill public hearings and UI concealment

The official Advisory Council/DWD bill, AB819, had its first public hearing on Thursday, February 4th, before the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy.

The Department of Workforce Development and the Advisory Council presented testimony in support of this bill. The Labor and Industry Review Commission testified against sections 54 and 55 of the bill — Department proposal D15-11, previously described here and here. I cannot think of any instance in which one state agency testified against a bill supported by another state agency. To understand the nature of this dispute, see the Commission’s memorandum and the Department’s responses to that memorandum.

I also testified about the proposed concealment changes in the bill.

On February 10th, the Senate Committee on Labor and Government Reform held its hearing on the Senate version of the Department’s UI bill, SB684. WisEye was there.

The Department and the Advisory Council again pushed for adoption of these proposed changes, and the Commission again disputed the changes to circuit court review. Both Kevin Magee from Legal Action of Wisconsin and myself testified against the proposed concealment and “program integrity” changes.

My testimony focused on the Department’s marked increase in concealment cases starting in 2014 and even more concealment cases in 2015 against Wisconsinites. To demonstrate this concealment expansion, I used two charts. The first chart looked at how concealment assessments have varied from 2011 through 2014.

over-payments assessed

In this chart, the percentage of concealment assessments relative to the unemployment benefits being paid out was pretty much constant from 2011 through 2013. In 2014, however, concealment over-payments as a percentage of total unemployment benefits paid out jumped to 2.79%, approximately a 0.80% increase from the previous year. A 0.8% in gross domestic product or the unemployment rate would make headlines across the state. So, this 2014 increase in concealment over-payments being charged against claimants is remarkable.

These numbers from the fraud report also show how concealment over-payments suddenly increased in 2014 relative to non-fraud over-payments. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, non-fraud over-payments constituted more than 50% of total over-payments. In 2014, however, non-fraud over-payments dropped over five percentage points to just over 45%. Naturally, the percentage of fraud over-payments to total over-payments jumped in 2014 to nearly 55%. So, in 2014 concealment shot up in scope relative to unemployment in general just as non-fraud over-payments markedly declined.

Over-payment assessment data for 2015 is not yet available. But, the financial reports prepared for the Advisory Council indicate how much concealment monies have been collected by the Department as of 31 October 2015. As of that date, the Department had collected nearly $31 million in fraud and non-fraud over-payments. Of this amount, just over $1.753 million had been collected pursuant to the 15% concealment penalty that applies in concealment cases.

concealment collected

This 15% number provides a mechanism for estimating how much of the $31 million in over-payments relate to concealment allegations in general. Dividing $1.753 million by 15% equals approximately $11.69 million and represents the over-payments so far arising from concealment. Subtracting $11.69 million leaves around $19 million as the non-fraud portion of the over-payments paid in 2015. Accordingly, by 31 October 2015 the percentage of concealment to non-concealment over-payments collected at nearly 61%.

These numbers show a sudden increase in 2014 in concealment cases and this increase accelerated in 2015. In this light, the Department’s push to change the definition of concealment is part of an agenda to expand the scope and reach of concealment. The Department countered in its testimony before the committee that an intent to conceal is still required under its proposed changes to the definition of concealment. The proposed language, numerous posts on this blog, a Commission memorandum, and Kevin Magee’s testimony at the public hearing belie the Department’s assertions. Mistakes are increasingly being charged as concealment by the Department, and Commission review applying the actual concealment standard is the only way to fight these kind of charges.

Essentially, concealment is becoming the modus operandi of the Department’s efforts in administering the state’s unemployment law. Anyone who makes a mistake is at risk of a concealment charge from the Department, and the Department wants to change unemployment law to reflect this practice.

Appeals Court affirms that concealment must be intentional . . . for now

The District One Appeals Court issued a decision today in DWD v. LIRC (called Wallemkamp, after the claimant at issue in the case, Appeal No. 2015-AP-716, affirming the Labor and Industry Review Commission’s requirement that unemployment concealment be an intentional act.

In this case, the claimant was confused for thirteen weeks by questions about how to report her wages from two different employers and about her unemployment reporting requirements in general. Rather than counseling her about her mistakes and having her payback the difference in unemployment benefits from what she received with what she should have received, the Department charged her with concealment and wanted her to repay all unemployment benefits received plus a concealment penalty and to forfeit a sizable amount of future unemployment benefits as additional punishment for her confusion and lack of understanding.

An administrative law judge affirmed the concealment charges. The Commission, however, noted that the claimant in her testimony truly was confused because the questions she was asked were confusing and that she actually lacked a basic understanding of how unemployment law works. Accordingly, the Commission found no concealment because her mistakes were NOT intentional.

The Department appealed that decision to circuit court and then to the appeals court, making a host of arguments about how concealment in general really was not an intentional act, that the Commission was misapplying and did not actually understand unemployment law in matters of unemployment concealment, and that the evidence did not show confusion and misunderstanding but actual intent to defraud the Department.

Two courts have now rejected these arguments. But, the Department is slated to get its way with how it thinks concealment should be applied with a change to the statutory definition of concealment that will make claimants strictly liable for their mistakes. While the statutory definition of concealment will still have the word “intent” in it, there will no longer be any requirement for the Department to show that the claimant has an intent to conceal. The intent in the new definition of concealment will be presumed, and claimants will in the future have to demonstrate that their mistakes were either not their responsibility or beyond their control. Being confused or not understanding unemployment law will no longer suffice. So, the Department may have lost Wallenkamp for now, but the Department is rewriting the statute to get its desired result: strict liability for any claimant mistakes deemed serious enough by the Department to constitute concealment.