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.

DWD and LIRC continue to ignore court precedent on substantial fault

After the Supreme Court decision in Operton v. LIRC, 2017 WI 46, and an appeals court decision in Easterling v. LIRC, 2017 WI App 18, the Department of Workforce Development took no action to change its practices and follow these binding court decisions. Accordingly, parties needed to appeal their initial determinations in order to get unemployment law to be followed.

It is becoming apparent, however, that numerous appeals are now needed to get unemployment law to be followed whenever claimants are involved. Marilyn Townsend, Operton’s legal representative, just won an unemployment case in circuit court where DWD and the appeal tribunal not only continued to ignore Operton in an almost identical situation — namely a charge of several inadvertent errors by the employee — but the Labor and Industry Review Commission affirmed a finding of substantial fault by adding alleged warnings for which there was NO evidence in the record. As the circuit court judge explained (emphasis supplied):

The stated reasons for discharge were allegations that there were receiving issues on three separate dates in January of 2018. The store’s witness said he was only familiar with the incident that occurred on January 13th. The employer must prove the allegations upon which the discharge was based. Standing alone, this court does not believe that the January 13th incident [concerning a document mis-match between inventory and an invoice] is substantial evidence of substantial fault.

The plaintiff stated that she believed two pieces of paper merely stuck together and that is the reason the invoice was not scanned properly. She realized on the same day that an invoice could not be matched to the inventory and the [employer] witness (Ovsak) said she came to him and explained the problem. Apparently the problem was resolved when they received another invoice from the supplier on the following Monday.

There is no argument or claim that the plaintiff did anything intentionally wrong. In fact, she discovered her error and reported it to her supervisor. It appears that the incident was an inconvenience for the employer, but nothing more. The Commission agreed with the ALJ that the employee’s conduct did not rise to the level of an intentional and substantial disregard of the employer’s interest. There is no evidence that this single act was anything but an inadvertent error.

* * *

The Commission modified the decision to of the ALJ to fit the conclusion the ALJ wanted to reach. It decided that the January 13th incident, along with three prior coaching incidents during the second half of the fall of 2017, served as the reasons for discharge. Specifically, leaving a receiving door unlocked in August of 2017, an alleged incident of being belligerent and speaking with a raised voice on November 9th, and failing to accurately count some DVD’s on November 22th. The plaintiff says those earlier coachings are not relevant in determining whether the discharge after those coachings was for substantial fault where the employer has failed to prove the subsequent allegations that actually prompted the discharge.

The employer offered no proof at all of two of the three grounds alleged in the discharge document. While it offered proof that the January 13th, 2018 incident occurred, that act in the opinion of this court was not evidence of substantial fault. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that careless conduct does not equal substantial fault. Operton v. LIRC, 2017 WI 46, 375 Wis.2d 1.

The Commission relied on the prior coachings in 2017 as well as the January 13th incident to justify the finding of substantial fault. . . . the mere fact that [the Commission] did indicates that the Commission felt it necessary to essentially correct and bolster the findings of the ALJ in order to try and justify denying the plaintiff benefits.

Those prior coachings appear to be unrelated to the action on January 13th. They appear to be minor infractions and they did not lead to a dismissal standing on their own. The Commission cannot create evidence of substantial fault by adding the prior unrelated coachings to the January 13th incident.

So, now not only is DWD ignoring Operton, but administrative law judges at the Department’s hearing offices are also ignoring Operton. And, the Commission is also now ignoring Operton and seeking to get around Operton by adding arguments and connecting evidence in ways that the record obviously does not support.

The Department and the Commission are supposed to be NEUTRAL entities that are supposed to assess the evidence presented by employers to meet their heavy burden of persuasion in order to disqualify a claimant from receiving unemployment benefits when misconduct or substantial fault have occurred.

What this case illustrates is that the Department, the hearing offices, and the Commission are ignoring these obligations and instead looking to disqualify claimants on nothing more than whim and pretense, even when courts have directly told them otherwise.

Given the hundreds to thousands of people who apply for unemployment benefits every week in Wisconsin, it should in NO way require an attorney well-versed in the intricacies of unemployment law take an appeal into court simply so that unemployment law might be followed. An initial determination, a hearing before an administrative law judge, and an appeal to the Commission all failed in this case to follow clear and unmistakable black letter unemployment law.

An employee having to take up an appeal to circuit court and find an attorney for that appeal for the sake of simple justice in an unemployment case is in practical terms not possible for the hundreds and thousands seeking unemployment benefits every week of the year in Wisconsin. Something is fundamentally wrong when claimants have to go to such lengths simply to get the unemployment benefits due them if the law had been followed in the first place.

Note: Links to the appeal tribunal and LIRC decisions will be added.

Despite Operton and Easterling, no change with substantial fault at DWD

The Easterling and especially Operton decisions should indicate that inadvertent — i.e., careless or unintentional mistakes — on the job should not disqualify someone from unemployment benefits.

The Department, however, is not happy with these outcomes. At the Advisory Council’s 16 March 2017 meeting, the following public comments were made about Easterling:

Ms. Knutson stated the decision in this case will provide general guidance to adjudicators and ALJs; however, cases are very fact-intensive to determine if it is truly an inadvertent error or substantial fault. Mr. Manley stated there should be a way to sharpen the definition of substantial fault to leave less gray area for interpretation and would not allow exceptions that disregard the entire rule. An employee that signed an employer policy of expectations that were not followed should not be able to claim that those policies were not followed because of a mistake to claim benefits. Mr. Manley expressed concern that the decision by the Court of Appeals is not within the spirit of what the Legislature intended to be as the definition of substantial fault. If decisions are based on this conclusion because the statute is not worded as clearly as it should be, it should be revisited.

Meeting Materials at 12.

NOTE: Both the Department and the Advisory Council have apparently forgotten that the council rejected substantial fault. Mr. Manley’s comments, moreover, ignore the basic requirements in unemployment law that employees NOT be disqualified for their unintentional, performance-related mistakes.

Inside the Department, however, the comments have not been so sanguine. In mid-May after Operton was decided, a Department insider explained to me:

The Operton decision went to the adjudication staff soon after it was issued. At a staff meeting a few days later, a supervisor said that there would be no new training on substantial fault despite the decision.

This lack of re-training in light of Operton is important. After Easterling, Ms. Knutsen simply noted that substantial fault involved a fact-intensive inquiry but provided NO explanation about what the Department would do to implement and follow Easterling. Now, a Department supervisor is indicating that there would be NO new training in how to follow the Wisconsin Supreme Court precedent in Operton. In other words, the Department is continuing to apply its pre-Operton and pre-Easterling standards for substantial fault.

A recent clinic case confirms this observation. In this case, the Department denied unemployment benefits to a teller discharged for cash-handling errors. The initial determination stated:

The employee was discharged because her performance did not meet the employer’s expectations. Her final incident was within her control; her actions do not rise to the level of misconduct. It was within the employee’s control to meet the reasonable requirements; therefore, her discharge is considered to be for substantial fault on the part of the employee.

Here, the Department is still applying its pre-Operton and pre-Easterling analysis of determining whether the employee was in control of the action in question. Under this framework, inadvertent errors only occur when employees lack control over their actions. The unintentional or accidental nature of the errors does not matter at all under this analysis.

NOTE: At the 17 November 2016 Advisory Council meeting, the Department presented a memorandum describing some misconduct and substantial fault decisions. The decisions covered in the substantial fault section of the memorandum describe only a few Commission decisions over whether the employee’s actions were major or minor infractions of company rules or involved absenteeism issues. There is no discussion of what constitutes reasonable employer expectations, what actions are reasonably in an employee’s control, what actions are inadvertent errors, and what actions are the result of an employee’s lack of skill, ability, or equipment.

Marilyn Townsend, Operton’s legal representative, took the teller’s case on and over-turned the initial denial of unemployment benefits at the hearing stage. The decision of the appeal tribunal, however, did not apply Operton despite the obvious similarities. At the hearing, there was no indication whatsoever that the teller’s errors were anything other than unintentional and accidental. Yet, the administrative law judge found that the teller essentially lacked the skills to do the work assigned her after a promotion (another exception to substantial fault) and then committed no errors after being demoted which would justify the discharge.

the record reveals that the employee requested additional training and support for her work performance issues. She did not receive the additional training and support which leads to the conclusion that she lacked the skill and ability to perform the job. The employee also struggled to perform the Phase II role and was demoted back to a Phase I role. While working in a Phase I role, the record demonstrated that the employee didn’t have any work performance matters. If she did have infractions in her Phase I role, those matters were not raised on the record by the employer.

So, there are decisions from the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court that explain that, pursuant to the statutory language for substantial fault, accidental or unintentional mistakes on the job are inadvertent errors and do not qualify as substantial fault. As of June 2017, however, the Department is ignoring these court decisions when applying what it believes substantial fault should or should not include.

What should claimants do? Appeal. As the Department and the Department’s administrative law judges are NOT following court precedent, claimants have to appeal initial determinations denying them unemployment benefits to appeal tribunals and then the Commission. The Commission will follow court precedent about inadvertent errors and reverse disqualifications based on accidental and unintentional errors on the job.

Operton oral argument

Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held oral argument in Operton about whether substantial fault disqualifies employees from receiving unemployment benefits because of their inadvertent mistakes and what standard of deferral courts owe the Labor and Industry Review Commission in deciding unemployment cases.

Substantial fault is defined in Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5g)(a) as:

those acts or omissions of an employee over which the employee exercised reasonable control and which violate reasonable requirements of the job but shall not include:

  1. Minor infractions of rules unless such infractions are repeated after a warning was received by the employee,
  2. inadvertent mistakes made by the employee, nor
  3. Failures to perform work because of insufficient skill, ability, or equipment.

The history of this provision is described in an amicus brief I filed on behalf of the Wisconsin Employment Lawyers Association. Basically, the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council had rejected this change in unemployment law, but the Department worked with the Joint Finance Committee to add this provision to the 2013 budget bill.

Prior to Operton, the Commission had 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. The claimant in Operton failed to meet this standard, according to the Commission, because her few cash-handling mistakes (eight over 20 months of employment) occurred after a warning and were not because of a lack of skill, ability, or equipment. Whether these errors qualified as inadvertent or not was never specifically addressed. The appeals court in Operton addressed exactly what is meant by an inadvertent mistake in the statute by holding that: (1) some kind of employee intent behind the mistakes at issue was 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.

Because the claimant won at the appeals court, argument started with counsel for the Commission, William Sherlin Sample. He began with an explanation about the Commission’s dispute with the appeals court over how the Commission’s prior misconduct decisions should be addressed. After a few comments or queries from the justices, that was all that was said directly about the deferral question. The rest of the oral argument featured questions about what the substantial fault disqualification meant and how to apply it.

Chief Justice Roggensack wanted to know whether the appeal tribunal held that there was no inadvertent error because the claimant was aware of the employer’s cash handling policies. In other words, did an inadvertent error turn on a lack of awareness of the employer’s job requirements? The appeal tribunal had stated:

[Operton] was aware of the employer’s policies, including the cash handling and WIC check procedures, but continued to make cash handling errors resulting in actual financial loss to the employer, after receiving multiple warnings. The record does not establish that the employee lacked the ability or skill to perform her work. As such, this appeal tribunal must find that her discharge was for substantial fault connected with her employment

The Commission disagreed with this equivalency. Simple awareness of an employer policy went to whether the employer’s job requirements were reasonable and did not address whether the actual on-the-job error was inadvertent or not.

NOTE: Indeed, to do otherwise would essentially mean that inadvertent mistakes on the job only occur when employees have no knowledge of what is required of them. It would essentially limit inadvertent errors to unreasonable job requirements and call into question why the provision for inadvertent errors existed in the first place.

In framing this question this way, Roggensack was essentially making the awareness of a rule the same as an intent to violate that rule. Awareness of an employer policy is not the same as being aware of the errors as they occur, however. Someone running a register that comes up short, for instance, may know that she should not come up short at the end of the day. But, the short register by itself does not indicate she had an intent to steal from the employer. There needs to be evidence that her intentional or grossly negligent actions were responsible for the register shortage. By equating mistake in this way with following an employer requirement, Roggensack is essentially doing what the Department has done with unemployment concealment.

Sample also explained to the justices that there was no express finding by the appeal tribunal or the Commission that the errors in question were NOT inadvertent errors. And, that explanation dovetailed with an issue that threaded through the oral argument: whether a finding that an employee’s mistake was inadvertent or not qualified as a finding of fact or a legal finding. For the Commission, this finding was strictly factual because it only touched on the “intent” of the employee when making the mistakes in question. As noted below, the justices had a different take.

Justice Kelly asked Sample about the relationship between unintentional mistakes for misconduct purposes versus inadvertent mistakes for substantial fault. While the dictionary definitions of inadvertent and unintentional rely on each other, Sample explained, the number of warnings Operton received transformed her mistakes from unintentional to intentional.

Justice Ann Bradley then tipped her hand and pointed out that Sample was making the same claim here that the court of appeals had rejected in its decision: namely that the Commission was merging the inadvertent errors provision with the infractions repeated after warning provision. For the Commission, this analysis by the appeals court did not apply because each successive warning to Operton made a claim of inadvertence less and less credible. Whereas the appeals court did not see any evidence of intent or willfulness by the employee in the appeal tribunal or Commission decision, Sample demurred, there was in actuality such evidence because a finding of no intent for misconduct purposes was NOT the same as a finding of unintentional conduct for the purposes of substantial fault.

Justice Gableman asked whether the number of errors can establish intent. Sample answered that such matters were handled on a case-by-case basis and that in Operton the “intent” in question arose from the series of errors the employee made.

Chief Justice Roggensack then pointed out that it appeared that the Commission was determining whether or not certain facts met a particular legal standard. During rebuttal, Sample again explained that there was no specific analysis of the errors as inadvertent and, that if such analysis was needed, a remand for additional evidence would be appropriate. Justice Abrahamson observed that when the facts are not in dispute — as in this case — the issue is usually whether those facts satisfy a particular legal standard. Where the facts are in dispute, she added, then the court is confronted with a mixed question of fact and law.

Marilyn Townsend represented Operton. After describing how unemployment benefits helped businesses, communities, and workers, Townsend faced questions from Justice Kelly about how to apply substantial fault. Did each mistake have to be analyzed in isolation or should they be examined as a group, he asked. Townsend answered both types of analysis could be applied, depending on the circumstances of each case. And, in Operton’s situation, she reported, each single mistake had to be examined separately from the others because of the amount of time between the mistakes and the distinct nature of the mistakes. The question was largely academic, however, as Townsend pointed out that the Commission never did an inadvertent error analysis for any of the eight errors in question.

Chief Justice Roggensack then returned to her earlier proposition concerning the portion of the appeal tribunal decision quoted above: should an awareness of a policy mean that the mistakes in violation of that policy constitute the required intent?

NOTE: Neither the parties nor the court addressed the issue that there can be degrees of intent. At present, the Commission generally requires a much higher level of intent for a finding of misconduct than it does in substantial fault cases. And, in Operton’s case, it is clear from the appeal tribunal decision and the briefing that she was unaware of the errors as they were being made. That is why the errors were inadvertent.

Justice Abrahamson asked Townsend which holding she preferred: the main holding in Operton or the holding by Justice Lundsten in his concurrence in which he observed that misconduct and substantial fault have important differences around the number of acts at issue and that each act has to be analyzed to determine whether it is something more than inadvertent. Townsend responded that, if forced to choose, she preferred the analysis in the concurrence.

Townsend also agreed with Chief Justice Roggensack that a temporal component had to be applied to each error at issue in the case.

NOTE: That is, each error had to be examined relative to other errors and what else was happening in the workplace in general.

Near the end of the oral argument, Justice Gableman observed that perhaps the case was about infractions and not inadvertent errors at all. In response, Justice Abrahamson posited that any of the three caveats to substantial fault could apply, and it was up the employee simply to show that he or she qualified for unemployment benefits under one of these three provisions.

NOTE: Gableman’s observation missed the distinction between an infraction and inadvertent error over which the appeals court hinged its decision. Infractions are acts over which a person has some control, like whether to call in when late to work, whereas inadvertent errors are accidental mistakes over which a person has no control, such as mis-dialing a phone number. Abrahamson’s response was also somewhat misleading, as it presumed that employees have to establish their eligibility for unemployment benefits rather than the employer demonstrating a disqualification.

Overall, the parties and the justices were effective in getting their points across. Probably the earliest for a decision is April 2017, and there should be a decision no later than June of next year.

The actual financial impact of substantial fault

Back in April 2016, I described the confusion about the two versions of the Department’s substantial fault proposals and calculated the financial impact of substantial fault based on that estimate.

But, there is actual data available for determining the financial impact of substantial fault. Wisconsin reports its handling of unemployment claims to the Employment & Training Administration of the United State Department of Labor. This federal agency then makes this data available to the public, and quarterly numbers regarding the number and outcome of non-monetary determinations is available via the ETA 207 series.

NOTE: Non-monetary determinations are those determinations that do NOT involve calculations to determine eligibility based on prior earnings or other kinds of monetary calculations. The data for non-monetary determinations includes determinations regarding discharges, voluntary leaving (i.e., quitting), and determinations regarding claimants’ able and available status, refusals of suitable work, adequate job search efforts, and other eligibility status issues. There is both a short description and a long description of this data.

Accordingly, this data can indicate specifically the kind of impact the substantial fault disqualification standard has on unemployment claims in the state of Wisconsin.

NOTE: The misconduct label for this data is used nationally because historically misconduct was the only disqualification standard used in discharge cases. But, starting in 2014, the misconduct data here for Wisconsin includes both misconduct and substantial fault determinations.

The substantial fault disqualification began to be applied by the Department in initial determinations issued on or after 5 January 2014. See 2013 Wis. Act 20 § 9351(1q) (new misconduct and substantial fault provisions “first apply with respect to determinations issued under section 108.09 of the statutes on January 5, 2014”).

Until the first quarter of 2014, the Department denied on average about 26% of all claimants who were discharged from their jobs. From the first quarter of 2014 until the latest available (the quarter ending June 2016), 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.

Percentage of discharge claims being denied

NOTE: The actual data for creating these charts is set forth in a table, WI Separation Data, compiled from the ETA 207 data.

This jump is even more shocking in light of the decline in discharge determinations since the start of 2014.

Number of Discharge Determinations over time From 2007 to the end of 2013, the number of discharge determinations averaged 19,462.43 per quarter. Not surprisingly, during the height of the last recession in 2009 and 2010, there were discharge determinations in some quarters that numbered over 21,000 or even 22,000. See Table: WI Separation Data. But, in general the number of discharge determinations per quarter hovered around 17,000 to 19,000. In the first quarter of 2014, however, the number of discharge determinations plummeted to under 14,000. And, the number of discharge determinations has continued to decline since then. From the start of 2014 to June 2016, the Department has issued on average only 12,605.50 discharge determinations per quarter.

NOTE: The total number of determinations being issued by the Department has not declined, however. Prior to 2014, the number of determinations issued per quarter averaged 58,945.25. From 2014 on, the average number of determinations being issued increased to 59,668.60 per quarter. As indicated in the table for WI Non-Separation Data, the number of determinations not connected to separation issues being issued jumped from 46.87% of all determinations per quarter prior to 2014 to 64.01% after 2014. In particular, much if not all of this increase in non-separation determinations concerns an approximately 26% increase in determinations regarding a claimant’s able and available status, a five-fold increase in determinations (from just over 3,000 determinations prior to 2014 to almost 16,000 determinations on average after the start of 2014) over a claimant’s failure to follow the Department’s reporting requirements, and a nearly 100-fold increase in determinations (around 13 cases per quarter prior to 2014 to nearly 1,200 per quarter after 2014) over a claimant’s failure to follow the Department’s job profiling services. In all three of these categories, the percentage of benefit denials has also jumped at least 10 percentage points on average after 2014.

It should also be noted that these non-separation denials generally do not disqualify a claimant for an extended period of time. For instance, a denial of benefits because of failing to report to Department-mandated profiling services or provide requested information is usually cured by reporting for those services or providing the needed information. As a result, the disqualifications from receiving unemployment benefits pursuant to these denials are generally short-term denials. A denial of benefits because of substantial fault or misconduct, on the other hand, lasts 7 weeks at a minimum and requires new earnings of 14X a claimant’s weekly benefit rate in order to re-qualify for unemployment benefits.

This decline in discharge determinations, however, does not indicate that the impact of substantial fault should be discounted in some way. Quarterly reports on each state’s unemployment system from the Employment & Training Administration indicate both the average weekly benefit rate for claimants during the previous twelve months and the average number of weeks unemployment benefits are being received during the last twelve months. The report for Wisconsin for the first quarter of 2015 indicates an average weekly benefit rate of $288.04 for the previous twelve months and an average duration for benefits of 14.8 weeks, leading to $4,262.99 in unemployment benefits at issue. Applying the pre-2014 25.99% denial ratio to the post-2014 12,605.50 discharge determinations that take place on average in each quarter means only 3,276.17 cases would be denied rather than the 4,852.00 being denied with substantial fault in place — a difference of 1,575.83 cases. Multiplying this number of cases by the $4,262.99 of unemployment benefits at issue leads to an amount of $6,717,747.53 per quarter being denied claimants currently under this new substantial fault standard. As substantial fault has now been in effect for ten quarters, the amount of unemployment benefits “saved,” or not paid to claimants, amounts to $67,177,475.32.

It is expected that substantial fault will also, on the whole, lead to employees filing fewer claims because claimants will learn how broad the substantial fault disqualification is and stop filing claims altogether. The data supports this trend. In the second quarter report in 2016, the weekly benefit rate for the last twelve months is $306.43, and the average duration of benefits for the previous year is 13.3 weeks. With these figures, the amount of benefits at issue is $4,075.52. Multiplying this amount by the 1,575.83 average number of cases per quarter denying unemployment benefits to claimants because of substantial fault leads to an amount of $6,422,326.68 per quarter being denied to claimants and a ten quarter amount of $64,223,266.82. As a result, the range of lost benefits because of substantial fault is between $67 and $64 million.

NOTE: The Department’s original estimate of $19.2 million per year, after 2.5 years, amounts to $48.4 million — approximately $15-$20 million less than what the actual data reveal.

So, even as fewer and fewer discharged employees are filing claims for unemployment benefits, the new substantial fault standard that become effective in 2014 is leading to thousands of claimants being denied millions in unemployment benefits.

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.

UI solvency done on backs of the unemployed

The CapTimes and Madison.com just published my letter to the editor about a recent AP report on the solvency of the state’s UI fund.

Dear Editor: Recent concerns over the solvency of the Unemployment Insurance fund are misplaced.

As stated in a recent article, “The state could also further cut down on benefit payments to address the fund’s solvency,” and the state has been doing just that. Benefit payments in Wisconsin have plummeted to record lows. In early 2013, the Department of Workforce Development projected UI benefits to be $797 million in 2014 and $696 million in 2015. The actual benefit payments in 2014 were $732,327,104 and only $605,481,027 in 2015, $91 million less than expected.

Why have benefit payments plunged from what was expected? First, the department has set up a series of obstacles for folks to overcome when filing their claims, including poor phone support, mandatory internet registration, cumbersome job search busy work, and an increasingly complex filing process. Second, until the recent appeals court decision in Operton v. LIRC, substantial fault allowed DWD to disqualify claimants for inadvertent mistakes they make on the job. Finally, DWD has been charging claimants with unemployment fraud for making mistakes when trying to follow the increasingly complex process DWD has set up.

Recent DWD statistics showcase how unemployment fraud is becoming a major operation within DWD. In 2014, unemployment fraud charges jumped 44 percent from the previous year even as benefit payments markedly declined. For 2015, collection for unemployment fraud was up nearly 81 percent from 2013 collection efforts.

Since it is now so oppressive and dangerous to collect unemployment benefits, the risk of the fund going insolvent is minimal. But this concern for fund solvency ignores the whole point of unemployment benefits: to help those in need (and the state as a whole) when folks lose jobs through no fault of their own. In place of employers paying their taxes, the state has essentially achieved solvency on the backs of the unemployed.

The financial impact of substantial fault

A document available on this blog is cited by the Appeals Court in Operton v. LIRC, namely the original Department proposal for substantial fault — D12-01.

The appeals court observes at n.5 on p.6 of its decision that this document does not quite match the version of D12-01 supplied by the Commission in its briefing. Even though both versions are dated 24 October 2012, the copy produced by the Commission has an actual number for the fiscal impact of the proposed addition of substantial fault and the changes to misconduct — $19.2 million per year. The original D12-01 document introduced at the 27 November 2012 Advisory Council meeting only stated that the fiscal impact was yet to be determined. From my records of the Advisory Council meetings, it appears that the Department made this revision to D12-01 at the 21 February 2013 council meeting.

Obviously, the Department added this fiscal impact information without otherwise noting this change. Certainly, this number reveals a staggering impact on Wisconsin claimants when UI data from 2013 is considered. In the fourth quarter of 2013, the average weekly benefit claimants received in Wisconsin that year was $276.14, and those unemployment benefits lasted 15.9 weeks on average (see p. 64 of the data report). Multiplying these numbers together leads to a total benefit amount received of $4,390.63. Divide this number into the proposed $19.2 million fiscal impact from substantial fault, and 4,510 claimants end up being disqualified under these changes in unemployment. Each year.

“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.