In late 2022, it is time to see what has happened in Wisconsin with unemployment claim-filing.
Note: The charts presented here are from the Unemployment Insurance Data Explorer, which takes DOL unemployment data obtained from the states and provides a quick way to see what this data means.
Why claims are denied
First, some basic facts need to be introduced. Far too many people think that unemployment claims are approved or denied because of a dispute over a job separation between employee and employer.
That has not been the case since the Great Recession, however. Since before 2014, most initial determinations have denied a claim for reasons that have nothing to do with a job separation reason.
The green line on this chart shows the proportion of initial determination denials that are based on a job separation reason. From 2013 to 2015, roughly 20% of denial reasons were because of a dispute over the job separation. By 2016, that percentage was down to just over 10% and stayed there until the pandemic. Then the percentage climbed steadily to around 30% of all denials. This increase was because the Department examined all lay-offs arising from the pandemic for a prior disqualifying separation within a claimant’s benefit year to find a reason for denying that pandemic-related layoff claim. Yes, even though experience-rating charges were supposed to be waived during the pandemic, the Department still looked for disqualifying reasons from a prior job loss in which to deny eligibility.
So, with the pandemic now over, denials based on separations have declined markedly. With the hot job market, separation reasons are now below 10%.
So, the real story of why claims are denied has nothing to with a dispute between employer and employee over the job separation. The red line showing non-separation reasons is where most denials now happen. In 2013, over 40% of the initial determinations denying a claim were for reasons that had nothing to do with a job separation, and this percentage began climbing steadily due to new job search requirements, the move to on-line only claims-filing for initial claims and weekly certifications, and confusing and legalistic guidance about claim-filing. By 2016 to 2017, that percentage had climbed to 60%, but fell back down to just over 50% by 2018 (with no change in the law, election year anyone?). In 2019, still without any changes in law, the percentage began climbing again and was back at around 60% when the pandemic started. Yikes.
With the pandemic, this percentage declined back down to 2013 levels of just over 40%. In 2021 and 2022, however, there has been a rapid rise in these non-separation denial reasons, and Wisconsin is back at around 60% of all initial determination denying eligibility for non-separation reasons.
So, for many years now, the hurdle for eligibility has had little to do with job separation reasons and much to do with satisfying Department claim-filing requirements.
The true significance of the role of non-separation reasons can be seen in what happens per initial claim.
Note: An initial claim is what a claimant files to report a job loss for which he or she wants to claim unemployment benefits. No benefits are paid, however, based on an initial claim. Claimants must then file weekly certifications (called continuing claims in other states) for each week they want to be paid unemployment benefits. Because initial claims start an unemployment claim, they measure job losses and the claimants affected by those job losses. Weekly certifications, on other hand, only measure the number of people still successfully filing unemployment claims or who are still seeking to file such claims.
Outside of a slight dip in the pandemic and a recent increase in 2022, the green line for separation reasons hardly changed at all. The red line for non-separation reasons, however, began to nearly double in 2015 from 25% to almost 50%. By 2018, this denial rate for initial claims had declined slightly to just over 40%. And, there was a steep decline that began in 2019 just before the pandemic struck, and that steep decline continued into the pandemic, such that in 2020 the denial rate was almost the same as the denial rate for job separations. Since then, however, the denial rate for non-separation reasons for initial claims has sky-rocketed and is nearing 80% by the end of 2022. Together with the separation denial rate for initial claims climbing slightly to 15% at the end of 2022 (a seasonal climb every fall because, you know, winter), nearly 95% of initial claims were being denied at the end of 2022. Wow!
Just what are non-separation reasons
So, separation reasons (misconduct, substantial fault, or quitting a job without good cause) are not why the Department is finding the vast majority of claimants not eligible for unemployment benefits. The real reason the Department is finding claimants not eligible for unemployment benefits has to do with non-separation reasons.
Non-separation reasons usually are reasons directly related to a claimant not satisfying Department-mandated eligibility requirements. Other than an increase in job searches (from two to four in 2011) and the Department-initiated end of winter work search waivers, these mandates have been unchanged legally since before 2010. What has changed significantly is how the Department has implemented these requirements. Here is what has been happening since 2013.
The red (able and available for work), yellow (satisfying job search requirements), and green (other) have gone up and down dramatically over the past ten years.
Since 2016, able and available requirements have led to nearly 30% of all determinations being a denial. This large number of denials is happening because the Department ignores its own legal requirements for determining able and available.
Since 2015, denials because claimants fail to satisfy job search requirements have hovered over 40% and even over 50% except for a rock-like drop at the end of 2021 (discussed below). The job search requirements are leading to all of these denials through a combination of factors, notably the fact that all job searches must be reported on weekly certifications, and that mandated RESEA training and job registration are on-line only, even though the on-line guidance and assistance for accomplishing these goals are meager at best.
Other denial reasons — a catchall category — was at an over 40% denial rate in 2013, but declined steadily to around 15% by 2017 outside of a significant bump to around 25%/30% when the pandemic started. This denial category has been declining since then, however, and is approaching 10% by the end of 2022.
The impact of these changes can truly be seen when looking at these reasons per initial claim.
Both the job search (yellow line) and able and available (red line) plunged when the pandemic started, only to begin steep climbs in 2021. By the end of 2022, able and available reasons were leading to the disqualification of nearly 25% of all initial claims and job search issues were leading to the disqualification of over 45% of initial claims. These two reasons alone account for approximately 65% of all initial claims being denied at the end of 2022.
To understand just what is going on with these numbers, here are Wisconsin’s actual numbers for the second quarters of 2020 (57,466 initial determinations issued) and 2022 (59,564 initial determinations issued).
Update 23 April 2023: Replaced numbers nearly impossible to read with a graphic of those numbers. Click on the numbers to see a larger version.
Thousands of claims were denied at the start of the pandemic because claimants failed to register themselves at the jobcenter website. See “Missed job center registration” at Unemployment delays, part 2. While Wisconsin waived actual job searches, the state did not waive this registration requirement, and so far too many people had their claims denied for this reason. With this data, we now have a number for those denied for failing to register: more than 33,000. Only at the end of 2020 did the Department realize this job registration snafu was its own fault and stopped processing denials for this reason for a short time (until job searches were re-instated). What happened in mid-2020 was an tidal wave of determinations on this one issue of failed job registration.
By the second quarter of 2022, job search requirements and RESEA training were back in place, so job registration is again just one of many ways a claimant can be disqualified. When they complete these requirements, an initial determination finding them eligible as of the date the requirement is completed is issued. Hence, there are thousands of initial determinations now finding claimants eligible after they are originally denied eligibility for a few weeks.
As obvious in this data, a great deal of work and effort by both the Department and claimants is being spent on these requirements because claimants do not understand what is required of them in the first place.
And, as for the able and available disqualifications, in these situations the Department is simply ignoring its own law and applying a disqualification as it understands it — a claimant must be able to work 32 or more hours in a week in order to qualify for unemployment benefits — rather than what the actual requirements pursuant to unemployment law are — a claimant must be able to work as many hours in a week as physically or mentally capable of working, and will be able and available for work even if that number is less than 32 hours in a week. Most claimants in Wisconsin with a disability are being denied eligibility for no legal reason.
Overall, what this data shows is that the vast majority of people in Wisconsin filing unemployment claims today are being denied eligibility, and these denials almost always are based on claimants failing to satisfy Department claim-filing requirements. That is the story of unemployment in Wisconsin.