Employer UI taxes declining because more UI claims being denied

Wisconsin employers are having their unemployment tax rates slashed in 2017 because the fund from which unemployment benefits is reaching ever higher solvency metrics. The Walker administration is heralding this news here and here.

Understandably, there are two possible explanations for what is going on with the state’s unemployment fund. The state’s unemployment funds are positive because either job growth is booming or because fewer folks are claiming benefits despite NOT having jobs.

Is job growth booming in Wisconsin?

The July state jobs report reveals that job growth in Wisconsin continues to be anemic. This report indicates that, initially, in July 2016 5,000 private-sector jobs were added to Wisconsin payrolls. But, June 2016 numbers for private-sector job growth were revised downward, from 10,900 to 5,600. This loss of 5,300 jobs from the June report means that the initial number for July does not even get the state back to what was first reported for June 2016.

Neither does the quarterly data offer any better news. From March 2015 to March 2016, the quarterly data indicates that the state added 37,432 jobs during that time frame. But, this number is a few thousand less than what was reported for the March 2015 to March 2015 time frame in the July 2015 jobs report: 39,652 private-sector jobs.

So, without adding new jobs to the state’s economy, the decline in unemployment claims must be coming from fewer folks claiming unemployment benefits. In two bullet points, the July 2016 jobs report actually acknowledges this development.

  • Year 2016 initial UI claims are running at their lowest level since 1989.
  • Continuing unemployment claims in Wisconsin are running the lowest in at least the past 30 years.

But, the question remains: if jobs are not being created, why are claims now so low?

Why are unemployment claims so low?

Actual claims data is available from ETA 207, Non-monetary Determinations Activities Report. See DOLETA data downloads generally for UI data. The 207 data series has all determinations issued by a state compiled on a quarterly basis going back several decades until the most recently completed quarter, June 2016.

Here are some charts from that data for Wisconsin starting in the first quarter of 2007 through the second quarter of 2016.

Denial rates for all initial determination issued

This chart shows that most initial determinations issued by the Department lead to the denial of unemployment benefits. But, starting in the first quarter of 2014, the denial rate for initial determination jumped markedly. Prior to 2014, 59.90% of all initial determinations denied benefits to claimants. Since the start of 2014, 77.45% of all initial determinations issued by the Department have been to deny unemployment benefits. In other words, currently only one of four initial determinations being issued by the Department allows unemployment benefits, and three out of four initial determinations deny unemployment benefits in some way.

Keep in mind that these numbers are based on the initial determinations issued by the Department in regards to a new unemployment claim. In most states, these determinations would consist almost entirely of separation determinations — whether claimants are disqualified because their discharge was their fault in some way or they lacked good cause for quitting their jobs. In Wisconsin, these separation decisions are only a part of what the Department decides. And, increasingly separation decisions are becoming a smaller and smaller part of what the Department does in disqualifying claimants.

Ratio of Separation IDs to All IDs

Here, initial determination concerning separation issues (i.e., quits and discharges) were around 60% of all initial determinations until 2009, when they declined and hovered around 50% of all initial determinations until the first quarter of 2014. At that point, the percentage of separation initial determinations being issued by the Department plummeted to 40% of all initial determinations. In the last two quarters of 2015, the number of separation initial determinations fell again to under 30% of all initial determinations. So at present, less than 30% of the initial determinations being issued by the Department concern separation issues related to a discharge or a quit. And, since most of these other determinations (and probably all of them given the analysis below) are denying unemployment benefits, many of these probably include some kind of concealment allegation, given the Department’s push to allege concealment against claimants.

In regards to denying claimants unemployment benefits, the Department consistently denied about 26% of all claimants who were discharged from their jobs until the first quarter of 2014.

Percentage of discharge claims being denied

From the first quarter of 2014 until the latest, however, the number of discharge cases being denied jumped to 38.47% of all discharge determinations. This increase nearly doubled the number of denials from before 2014 — a stunning and remarkable jump in the number of claims being denied.

The magnitude of this jump is seen when it is compared the number of quit denials over this same time frame.

Percentage of quit claims being denied

Here, a slight increase in denials occurs in the first quarter of 2014. But, this increase is part of a general increase in denial rates that appears to have started in the second half of 2010. So, while denial rates for those quitting their jobs are high and gradually increasing, there is no sudden or striking shift in denial rates in quit cases at any one point in time.

Now, consider that in the last two years only about 30% of all initial determinations concern separation issues and that only 1 out of 4 initial determinations is allowing unemployment benefits at all. In this light, it appears that the only initial determinations right now allowing benefits are the discharge and quit separation determinations that are NOT denying benefits. Everything else the Department is doing is to deny unemployment benefits to claimants.

What these numbers reveal is that most folks applying for unemployment benefits are being denied those benefits, that essentially the only folks qualifying for unemployment benefits are those laid off from their jobs by their employers, and that numerous denials of unemployment benefits have nothing to do with separation issues. These non-separation initial determinations most likely are part of the Department’s program integrity efforts and most likely lead to charges of unemployment concealment, especially under the Department’s new strict liability standard for concealment.

So, unemployment claims and benefits are at record lows in the state because the state is making it difficult to impossible for claimants to receive benefits and charging the few that collect unemployment benefits with unemployment concealment. Essentially, employers are paying unemployment taxes for a benefit almost no one is using. Pretty soon, folks will start calling for eliminating the unemployment system entirely, as who wants to pay a tax that does nothing.

UPDATE (14 Sept. 2016): Fixed links so that a click on a chart brings up a full-sized version.

Why employer UI taxes are down: concealment and substantial fault

A previous post noted that unemployment taxes for employers are going down because the reserve fund’s cash balance is currently and expected to remain more than $500 million.

This success is remarkable, especially since it did not come about because employers’ taxes have been raised substantially. To be sure, the higher unemployment during the Great Recession led to the highest tax schedule — Schedule A — being implemented. And, for three years, 2011 to 2013, the FUTA tax credit available to employers was reduced.

But, recall the UI debt hole Wisconsin was in during the Great Recession. In March 2011, Wisconsin owed just over $1.6 billion because of borrowing to cover unemployment benefits being paid out. Only eleven other states ever owed more during this recession.

One point six billion dollars is a big hole to climb out of. As noted in a recent GAO report, some states reduced the number of weeks claimants were eligible for benefits as a way to fix their UI debt problems. In short, rather than making employers pay more, these states limited the ability of claimants to collect benefits in the first place. With less benefits being paid out, the taxes employers paid went further.

Other than the introduction of a waiting week before unemployment benefits begin being paid out, Wisconsin did not shorten the total weeks of unemployment eligibility. But, Wisconsin did other things on the benefit side of the equation that have starkly reduced the amount of benefits being paid out to claimants.

As noted previously, Wisconsin has been exceptionally aggressive on charging claimants with concealment and is proposing both increased penalties and stricter compliance standards to be applied to claimants that would effectively charge them with fraud when making honest mistakes on their claims. As the Department’s own fraud report shows, DWD has been taking in over $20 million a year the past two years in over-payment collections alone. Forfeiture penalties and charges against future unemployment benefits add significantly to the amounts flowing back into the reserve fund from claimants.

But, forfeiture over-payments and collections only tell part of the story. Department staffers have publicly noted that benefit payments are now at historically low levels. Indeed, at the May 19th Advisory Council meeting it was noted that Wisconsin has not seen such low levels of benefit payments since 2000, fifteen years ago. The big question is why benefit payments in Wisconsin are so low right now.

A look at 2013 and 2014 financial reports to the Advisory Council show large declines in 2014 in benefits being paid to claimants. The benefits charged to taxable employers for the past three years when employees were discharged are:

2012 - $788,019,106.15

2013 - $714,257,663.70

2014 - $580,681,613.52

The ratio of current year benefit payments to benefits paid the previous year, are 0.91 in 2013 but 0.81 in 2014. In other words, there was a nearly 20% decline in benefit payments in 2014 when compared to 2013, nearly double the decline in benefit payments from 2012 to 2013.

Benefits being paid to employees who quit also declined sharply in 2014.

2012 - $85,799,497.23

2013 - $81,861,854.13

2014 - $69,388,417.56

The 2013 ratio of benefit payments relative to the previous for quits was 0.95. That ratio in 2014 declined to 0.85, nearly three times the decline seen in 2013.

These declines in benefit payments in 2014 directly arise from changes in unemployment law contained in the 2013 budget act2013 Wis. Act 20 — regarding the elimination of numerous quit exceptions and the adoption of a new, substantial fault standard for discharges (see this previous post about these changes being included by the Joint Finance Committee in the budget bill). Understand that the original estimates presented to the Joint Finance Committee for these changes in unemployment law were a reduction of $14.1 million in benefit payments during the first fiscal year and a $23.1 reduction in benefit payments during the second fiscal year. As noted above, the actual decline for quits alone in 2014 was just over $12 million, and for discharges the decline was approximately $134 million.

NOTE: The financial reports given to the Advisory Council lack specific data about the number of claims at issue. The recent report about the activities of the Advisory Council, however, states that the new substantial fault standard led to “4,654 denied cases in 2014. See p.7 of the activities report. Using the average claim duration of 15.3 weeks and the average weekly benefit amount of $285 from the Department’s 2015 financial report, see pp. 37 and 38, each substantial fault disqualification amounted to $4,360.50. Adding up all of the denied cases in 2014 means that $20,293,767 in benefits were NOT paid out that year, $4 million more than what the Department estimated in its 2015 financial report, see p.33 of the financial report.

Because the decline in benefit payments is significantly more than what can be pieced together from available data, using a ratio of benefit payments from one year to the next to track these changes indicates at least how extraordinary the declines in 2014 were and, as indicated below, provides a mechanism for predicting what will happen in 2015 using currently available data.

Estimates for 2015 show that the decline in benefits being paid pursuant to discharges will continue. Using data for the first four months of each year, the total amount of benefits estimated to be paid in 2015 to discharged employees will be just over $480 million, $100 million less than in 2014. And so if current trends continue, the estimated level of benefits going to discharged employees in 2015 will only be 83% of the already record low amount that went to discharged employees in 2014.

On the other hand, estimated benefit payments in 2015 for employees who quit will only be $3 million less from what claimants who quit received in 2014. That is, benefits paid to employees who quit are expected to be within 97% of the 2014 numbers. Accordingly, it appears that the application of the new quit standards to claimants has stabilized and subsequent declines in benefits pursuant to quits are unlikely.

The Department has yet to acknowledge the impact the substantial fault disqualification has had on the benefits being paid out to claimants. The Department’s estimates set forth in its 2015 annual Financial Outlook Report call for a $16 million reduction in benefits to discharged employees because of substantial fault (much less than the $100 million estimated here for 2015) and an $11.5 million reduction in benefits through the elimination of various quit exceptions (nearly $9 million more than estimated here for 2015 but similar to the decline in quit benefits seen in 2014). See pp. 32-3 of the report.

These estimates severely under count the impact substantial fault has had on claimants. In its Financial Outlook Report, the Department presents for the first time a public description of the new substantial fault standard:

Substantial fault essentially means that if an employer establishes a reasonable job policy to which an employee can conform, failure to conform constitutes substantial fault.

See p.33 of the report. According to the Department, then, employees are disqualified whenever they fail to follow a reasonable employee policy. Given how steep the decline in benefits has been for discharged employees in 2014 and the first four months of 2015, it is obvious that the Department has begun applying this broad conception of substantial fault.

And so, with less money being paid out as unemployment benefits, employers’ taxes could that much more quickly fill the hole in the reserve fund created by the Great Recession. There simply has been no need in Wisconsin to reduce the number of weeks claimants are eligible for benefits when those claimants are likely to be disqualified in the first place from receiving any benefits at all.

Finally, it should be noted that even though Wisconsin now has a positive reserve fund balance, the unemployment fund is still not all that healthy. Based on standard UI fund metrics, a recent Trust Fund Solvency Report shows that Wisconsin still fares about as well as most other states do — that is, not so well (see p.56 of the report). The fund’s solvency is rated at 0.13 and a minimum of 0.60 is needed for Wisconsin to be eligible for interest free loans to cover future benefit payments. For how Wisconsin compares to other states, see p.59 of the solvency report. Among mid-western states, Wisconsin fares worst except for Indiana and Ohio, which both still have outstanding debt. Presentations by the Department to the Advisory Council have described the reserve fund’s financial problems in detail. See, e.g., the presentation contained in the Advisory Council activities report, pp.16-44. But, raising employers’ unemployment taxes appears to be unnecessary when benefit payments to claimants continue to decline markedly.