African-Americans are again being targeted for criminal prosecution

There is a new governor, a new Attorney General, a new secretary at the Department of Workforce Development, and a new division administrator for unemployment. But, African-Americans in Milwaukee continue to be targeted for criminal prosecutions for alleged unemployment fraud. Indeed, even as the number of cases have declined, the percentage against African-Americans have increased.

I previously posted about these prosecutions in October 2016 and November 2018.

Here are the 2015 and 2016 cases (click on the table to see details):

First cases

And, here are the 2017 and 2018 cases (click on the table to see details):

Westman and Rusch cases by race and gender

As noted in my previous posts, African-Americans made up 70-76% of all criminal cases, even though they made up only 7% of Wisconsin’s state population and only around 27% of the population in Milwaukee County. The percentage of claimants in the state as a whole who are African-American is around 11-12% of all claimants.

Several legislators have asked for information about these cases and an explanation for why African-Americans are being targeted for these prosecutions See, for example, this letter. Numerous groups have also raised concerns. Formal, public responses to these and other queries have been ignored, however.

The new head of criminal cases for the Department of Justice did present to the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council at the council’s April 18th meeting in 2019. At this meeting, Deputy AG Eric Wilson explained that criminal prosecutions would only be filed where the alleged fraud was sizable, where civil remedies were inadequate, and where there was a history of previous fraud. In addition, cases would no longer only be filed in Dane County (forcing residents from Milwaukee County and other parts of the state to travel to Madison for every event in their case) but would be filed in the county where the defendant resides. See meeting minutes at 3-5.

Starting in the summer of 2019, the Department of Workforce Development under Caleb Frostman and Mark Reihl and the Dep’t of Justice under Josh Kaul started a new round of these prosecutions being handled by Assistant AG Dan Lennington (click on the table to see details):

2019 cases

While the number of prosections is down from previous years (except for 2016, when there were also 11 prosecutions), the percentage of African-Americans being prosecuted is still around 73%. Anglos make up only 18% of these cases, and persons of color combined constitute 82% of all cases (9 out of 11).

Furthermore, the one defendant outside of Milwaukee County (an African-American women in Manitowac) is still being forced to travel to Dane County for her case. So, the declaration in April of 2019 about no longer requiring defendants to travel to Madison for the convenience of prosecutors only applies to the Milwaukee County cases.

And, it gets worse. One 2019 case was almost immediately dismissed by the prosecutor after being filed. In such circumstances, dismissal is usually because the defendant is not competent to stand trial or is deceased (one of the 2018 cases was dismissed soon after filing because the defendant was declared not competent to stand trial). As the Department of Workforce Development charges unemployment concealment/fraud for accidental or unintentional claim-filing mistakes, many, many folks with learning disabilities have been so charged. So, this near immediate dismissal indicates that the Department of Justice is not really applying any new or tougher criteria in deciding which cases to prosecute.

Indeed, the plea deal set for May 29th in one case (delayed by several months to allow for restitution to be complete) indicates that these cases are still largely being pursued as a means of debt collection despite the Deputy AG’s contrary statements back in April 2019 to the Advisory Council.

Finally, there is still no explanation for why African-Americans are being targeted for these cases wholly out of proportion to their presence in the population or even the unemployed. This racial bias has been going on for four+ years now without explanation.

If Lando was in Wisconsin, he would know what is going on here.

Lando and Vader

The state of the unemployment trust fund and employer taxes

The January 2019 news about declining employer taxes was stellar. The May 2019 financial report reveals that the trust fund is in even better shape: nearly $1.9 billion as of April 30th.

Note: of course, benefit payments continue their decline, dropping 6.7% from 2018 numbers to $330.9 million as of April 2019. Employer taxes are also down $23.9 million, to $330.9 million, for January to April 2019.

At the May 22nd meeting of the Advisory Council, there was a presentation on the health of the unemployment trust fund. An excellent chart in this presentation presents the current situation:

Financial outlook p.4 graph -- benefits, taxes, and trust fund balance

As evident here, the trust fund is at a near record high while claimants’ benefits and employers’ taxes are dropping like rocks down the proverbial well. Two charts showcase how benefits and taxes have markedly declined since 2011 (benefits) and 2012 (taxes) relative to total payroll in the state.

Financial outlook p.6 graph -- benefits as a percentage of payroll

Financial outlook p.7 graph -- taxes as a percentage of payroll

So, what Wisconsin has experienced the last eight to nine years is ahistorical — only around 37% of claimants applying for unemployment benefits end up receiving any benefits rather than the more typical 55% of applicants.

Note: Department personnel continue to remark about how benefit payments are at record lows without offering any explanations or theories for why these record low benefit payments are occurring. As noted in this blog, this problem of record-low benefit payments is not unique to Wisconsin. But, it does seem from this same note that changes in how states are administering their unemployment law disqualifications are responsible for much if not all of this decline. Shouldn’t the Department finally take ownership of its own culpability for what has been going on the last eight to nine years or at least explain why the legal changes and administrative practices adopted under the prior governor to make it more difficult to claim unemployment benefits are somehow NOT connected to this decline in unemployment benefits?

At a minimum, Department staffers need to read Andrew Stettner’s excellent analysis of state unemployment systems and the changes in eligibility standards and application rates describes the impact of these changes and why these changes should be re-examined and most likely reversed.

To understand how healthy the unemployment trust fund actually is, three different scenarios for the future were played out in this presentation.

  • In one scenario, the economy continues along its current course, benefit payments remain anemic, and the unemployment rate returns to the normal 4-5% for Wisconsin. Here, the trust fund continues to be robust in the short-term. But, growth of the fund eventually slows, and the fund begins to decline slightly in the long-term.
  • In the second scenario, the economy continues along its current course, but benefit payments return to the historical experience of Wisconsin. While no recession is assumed to take place, the trust fund balance starts to take a hit in 2020 and a switch to the more aggressive tax schedule C will be needed by 2026 or so.
  • In the third scenario, a mild recession in 2020 occurs. Even with the anemic level of benefit payments continuing — 37% — the bottom of the trust fund drops out such that less than $500 million is left in the fund by 2022. And, in the long-term, the most aggressive tax schedule — Schedule A — needs to be triggered to start pumping money back into the trust fund.

In other words, these scenarios indicate that the trust fund balance — despite being at record levels — is wholly inadequate given the current size and scope of Wisconsin’s economy. Only a Pollyanna desire for the economic equivalent of sunshine and rainbows to continue indefinitely keeps the unemployment trust fund from imploding.

The current fetish with minimizing employers’ taxes is just one culprit behind this carefree thinking. Economists have begun explaining, that there is no correlation whatsoever between employers’ tax rates and business success. What remains to be seen is what the Advisory Council will do about all these problems: keep current policies and administrative practices in place or begin the process of changing these policies and practices. As many of these simply relate to the Department’s bureaucratic preferences in how it administers unemployment law (and, in numerous places represents a sharp conflict with that law), there is much that can be done immediately to correct at least the unparalleled decline in benefit payments before we find ourselves in the middle of a recession and with no oar available to avoid the waterfall towards which we race.

Advisory Council meeting — 17 Jan. 2019

After a break for the November elections, the Advisory Council met on January 17th to meet the new secretary, Caleb Frostman, and review events of the last few months.

The financial report was eye-popping and will be addressed in its own post. Here is what was covered outside of the financial report.

Mis-classification of employees

Mike Myszewski reported on the Department’s efforts in preventing the mis-classification of employees.

Note: These reports continue to be made orally and have NEVER appeared in writing. Given the Department’s annual report on alleged claimant fraud and the numerous charts and reports on alleged claimant fraud that appear at these meetings, it begs the question why the Department cannot at a minimum put down on paper in some way what it is doing to combat alleged employer unemployment fraud.

In any case, given that this report consists entirely of what was said, some of my numbers may be off. In addition, the exact nature and scope of this data is unknown, as this data is simply not available to the public and the Advisory Council apparently does not ask for it.

Mr. Myszewski reports that the Department has recovered $2.1 million in unemployment taxes from employers because of mis-classification for 1222 employees, or about $347 per mis-classified employee.

This recovery arose from 511 investigations in the last fiscal year, and there had been 145 investigations so far in the current fiscal year.

There were NO questions from the Advisory Council about this report.

The 15 Nov. 2018 public hearing

As compared to the public hearing in November 2016 in which there were 300+ comments from 295 individuals, at the 2018 public hearing there were only 21 comments in toto. Given these few comments, the summary presented to the council at this meeting included not only a summary but the actual 21 comments that were made.

Not surprisingly, work search waivers were again the hot topic. Here are some of those work search comments as well as others:

Karen, HR manager

“Moving onto the standpoint of someone who worked for UI, I think that customer service should be more of a priority for claimants and employers alike, but especially claimants. I get that there are some people that play the system, but overall, the claimants are not the enemy. The poor customer service is evidenced by the outrageous wait times when claimants call in, (but the employer hotline is answered in a couple of rings), not being clear on the number to call to get assistance, not posting the adjudication centers’ phone numbers or street addresses, and the legalese that is not easily understood by the average person in documents (which would not present as much of a problem if the claimants could easily contact someone who could help explain it to them).”

Krista, claimant

“[After describing various education and training actions that should count as job searches:] I understand that the State wants people off UI and back onto to work as soon as possible, but sometimes education and building of new skills are needed before people can do that. Just because it isn’t an application to a job, it does not make these actions any less of a job search function.”

Anonymous

“[After requesting that property liens that the Department uses for its debt collection efforts no longer be visible to the public via court records, she explains:] I have my Masters degree in Business. I have an undergraduate degree in Nursing. The ridiculous time consuming hoops I jump through to ‘prove’ I’m looking for a job are ridiculous. $370/wk doesn’t cover my bills and no one is looking harder for my job than me. As opposed to making people sit in some 4 hour class — where I can assure you that people like myself who have been working since 14 will get nothing from it.”

United Migrant Opportunity Services

“Over 11,000 claimants were accused of concealment in 2014. When appealed, over 70% were overturned, and another 8% remanded, It would appear that the Department is alleging concealment in many cases where a more thorough review of the evidence does not support that finding.”

Scott, building services employer

Unemployment benefits should be limited to 4 to 8 weeks. [Note: Currently, claimants are eligible for up to 26 weeks of benefits, and winter usually lasts a minimum of 14-18 weeks for those who go through seasonal layoffs.]

Tawana, claimant

She is upset with: (1) having to wait 21 days for an adjudicator to be assigned to her case and (2) the extremely limited access to phone support when the number of unemployment claims are much less than what occurred in 2010, when she last filed for unemployment benefits.

Soraya, claimant

Upset with having to wait 21 days for a decision on her claim.

Sarabi, claimant

The penalties for unemployment concealment are much too harsh.

Robin, claimant

Get rid of work search requirements for employees who experience seasonal layoffs and return to the same employer and eliminate the waiting week.

Sandy, claimant

Get rid of work search requirements for employees who experience seasonal layoffs.

Kyle, claimant

Get rid of work search requirements for employees who experience seasonal layoffs.

Tasha, employer

Get rid of work search requirements for employees who experience seasonal layoffs. And, the claim-filing process is extremely difficult for the employees handling snow removal during the winter months.

Bill, employer

Get rid of work search requirements for employees who experience seasonal layoffs. For employers in Northern Wisconsin, work searches during winter months are a waste of time for both employees and employers, as there no jobs available then.

Deborah, employee

End the ban on unemployment benefits for those who are working while also receiving SSDI benefits. [Note: the Department currently eliminates unemployment benefits because these claimants have a disability that qualifies them for SSDI benefits. Wisconsin is the only state to have instituted this ban. Other states have only applied an offset to unemployment benefits for the SSDI benefits being received.]

Nadine, employer

Get rid of work search requirements for employees who experience seasonal layoffs and return to the same employer. She explains: “Our seasonal employees are returning to our business which they have been at for several years!! Why take the chance with this job-search stuff, which we could lose our valuable employee that we rely on returning. Now days’ finding someone to work is very hard.”

Richard, employee

Get rid of work search requirements for employees who experience seasonal layoffs and expect to return to the same employer year-in and year-out,

Avis, claimant

Complaining about being denied benefits because a medical disability limits work availability. *Note: the description offered presents an obvious violation, as claimants are still eligible for unemployment benefits when work availability is limited to part-time work only because of a medical condition. See CITE.

Hawks Quindel law firm

Undo the damage to the unemployment system created in DWD v. LIRC (Beres), 2018 WI 77, 382 Wis.2d 611, 914 N.W.2d 625, that allows an employer to discharge an employee for a single absence (regardless of why the employee was absent) as misconduct and end the work search requirements for employees who undergo seasonal layoffs and expect to return to the same employer.

Heidi

After presenting numerous ways to make job search information more user-friendly to claimants, she requests that job search criteria be expanded to include the actions claimants actually need to undertake when searching for a new job — such as networking events and informational interviews — and for the Department to allow training opportunities that currently prevent claimants from receiving any unemployment benefits.

Lame duck legal changes

The Department included a one-page memorandum regarding the lame duck changes enacted via 2017 Wis. Act 370. The last sentence of the memo provides all the description that is needed:

Because Act 370 codified current administrative rules and Department practices, claimants and employers should not expect any changes to the unemployment insurance program under this Act.

So, Republican legislators have taken ownership of the job search requirements that nearly no one — I repeat, nearly no one, if the public comments in 2016 and again in 2018 are any indication — thinks are doing anything useful except to make unemployment claims more difficult. Everyone in rural Wisconsin should be asking their state representative and senator why — WHY — they think these job search requirements make sense.

Next steps

The Department indicated that its own proposed changes to unemployment law will be introduced at the February meeting of the Advisory Council (why the Department continues to introduce its own substantive changes to unemployment law remains a mystery ever since the Department proposed its own substantive changes to unemployment law in November 2012).

Scott Manley of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce also made two research requests. First, he wanted the Department to revisit its definition of independent contractor work in light of growing employment through TaskRabbit, Mechanical Turk, and other on-line business operations.

Note: the Labor and Industry Review Commission has already determined that a Lyft driver is NOT an employee for the purpose of unemployment benefits. See Ebenhoe v. Lyft, Inc., UI Hearing No.16002409MD (20 Jan. 2017). Currently, Lyft’s responsibility for paying unemployment taxes is being litigated. See Lyft, Inc., UI Hearing Nos. S1500424MW and S1800091MW (26 Oct. 2018).

Second, Mr. Manley wanted to know what the Department could do to expand its program integrity efforts for bringing criminal charges against claimants for their alleged unemployment fraud. For how the criminal charges that have already been filed are hugely disproportionate according to the race of claimants (75% of the cases are against African-Americans), see this post.

Mark Reihl of the Carpenters made a third request. He wanted a comparison of how Wisconsin’s weekly benefit rate (the average received and the maximum available) compare to the other fifty states and territories.

Note: Wisconsin’s maximum available weekly benefit rate is $370. The average weekly benefit being paid out in 2017 was $317.14. See this 2017 4Q report (this data is for all fifty states, Wisconsin is on p.64 of the pdf). Data for the 3Q of 2018 indicates that the average for the last four quarters was $320.03. The average duration of unemployment benefits for these last four quarters was 12.7 weeks. See p.63 of the pdf for this data.

Data on the financing for all fifty states for 2017 (the most recent year available) can be found here (Wisconsin is on p.60 of the pdf).

Still more money for program integrity

Program integrity at the Department of Workforce Development is about to get a big infusion of cash.

NOTE: While program integrity is intended to examine employers who mis-classify their employees as independent contractors, the main focus has apparently always been on charging employees with unemployment fraud. I make this claim because: (1) my numerous dealings with program integrity investigators has always been on behalf of employees charged with unemployment concealment, never on behalf of employers charged with mis-classified employees, (2) for unknown reasons, reports to the Advisory Council about the Department’s worker mis-classification efforts have always been done orally, (3) those oral reports have never indicated that the entire scope of this program is being described, (4) Department publications in 2017 about its program integrity efforts only have information about claimant concealment and not actual mis-classification efforts, and (5) reports from Department insiders indicate that “program integrity” is a widespread effort toward identifying alleged claimant concealment that includes both specific employees solely focused on program integrity and an additional job duty for all of the Department’s claimant investigators and adjudicators.

Recall that the 2015 unemployment changes in 2015 Wis. Act 334 included two provisions that essentially created a slush fund available to the Department for its “program integrity” efforts.

At the 21 September 2017 meeting of the Advisory Council, Secretary Allen requested and the council approved enactment of this assessment. As the financial report at that meeting indicated unemployment tax receipts amounted to $581.7 million, this tax diversion to program integrity will bring in around an additional $58,170. These funds are on top of the $1.63 million transferred to program integrity in proposal D17-08 that is now part of SB399. SB399 is awaiting the governor’s signature.

NOTE: The Department’s 2017 proposed changes to unemployment law which are now part of SB399 are discussed here.

The Department is running the table.

Star Wars casino coins

Winter work search concerns

As they say on a popular television show, “Winter is coming.” For Wisconsinites, winter means seasonal layoffs, as Wisconsin for the time being still has a winter.

Seasonal layoffs, however, no longer mean seasonal unemployment with work searches waived for the snowy months. Rather, DWD has instituted an 8 week + additional 4 week work search waivers that are complicated to follow and difficult to get. The Department’s work search FAQ has the needed information about the new work search requirements and the end of seasonal work search waivers.

Keep in mind that the end of seasonal work search waivers came when DWD adopted a proposal based in part on how Florida limited its work search waivers; see also this direct link to my comments on the proposed regs. Obviously, DWD did not consider that Florida has a much different winter than Wisconsin.

The limited work search waivers were enacted in 2013 but not put first into effect until the 2015-16 winter season.

So, the first time the public could respond to these new waivers was at the 17 November 2016 public hearing, and hundreds voiced their displeasure to this change in waiver practice.

As the minutes for the 19 January 2017 Advisory Council meeting explain (p.5 of the pdf):

A total of 295 people provided 307 comments by letter, e-mail or at the public hearing. The department received the majority of correspondence by letter (158 letters) or through e-mail (123 emails). A total of 51 people attended the public hearing in which 19 people testified, 6 people testified and provided written correspondence and 1 person registered an opinion, but did not speak. A majority of the correspondence was specific to an employer or industry and contained the same text. A tally of the comments showed 246 comments received related to work search waivers for recalled employees.

These minutes leave out, however, that almost all of the comments — similar or not — were from employers. The 43 pp. summation of those comments show that employers were deeply concerned over retaining skilled and dedicated seasonal employees who were now at risk of leaving due to the new work search requirements that force employees during winter layoff months to search for and accept work with other employers and thus disrupt the operations of the original employer. Letters from Sen. Erpenbach, Sen. Harsdorf, and Sen. Carpenter also raised these concerns about employers losing valuable employees.

NOTE: Sen. Harsdorf’s bill to restore seasonal work search waivers, SB83, has not gone anywhere.

Apparently, nothing was done for the upcoming winter season that is now approaching. The only official response to this uproar is set forth in the last Q&A in the work search FAQ (emphasis supplied):

What is the policy basis for the requirement change?

The requirements are a result of a change in DWD’s administrative rules. These rules not only bring Wisconsin in line with more than half of all U.S. states and reaffirm the purpose of UI as delivering short-term assistance, but they also respond to employer concerns regarding the solvency of the UI Trust Fund’s balancing account. The change assures that Wisconsin’s UI law conforms to the federal requirement that state UI programs provide for an experience-rated UI tax system. This ensures fair and equitable financing of the payment of benefits among employers. By encouraging employees to find employment during their industry’s off season, fewer benefits are paid. This assists employers who have negative account balances and are taxed at the maximum UI tax rate. DWD, with the support of three separate committees in the Wisconsin State Legislature, restored the waiver limits that were in place prior to their repeal in 2004.

The concerns of employers about keeping valuable employees through winter layoffs in a state that has a winter and staying competitive when work returns in the spring apparently mattered for naught.

But, employees are not simply thrown to the winter wolves or wampas. Here are three things claimants should keep in mind when performing their four jobs searches a week.

Canvassing periods In Wisconsin, claimants have during their first six weeks — their canvassing period — the right to refuse work outside of their typical job experience. For instance, if the claimant is a nurse, he or she can decline a McDonald’s job during the first six weeks of his or her job search. See, e.g., Einerson v. Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Inc., UI Hearing No. 09610221MW (29 April 2011) (employee properly declined to accept the newly created position during her canvassing period because the new position required non-professional responsibilities that encompassed significantly less skills than were required in her most recent employment).

Protection of labor standards After their six week canvassing period, employees must accept ANY job offer as long as it meets labor market criteria (not less than 25% of the average wage for that job during that shift in question in the local labor market — aka the relevant county). So, a person can decline a nursing job if the $8 an hour pay is less than 25% of the average, local labor market rate. See, e.g., Hemenway v. Life Style Staffing, UI Hearing No. 12002612MD (9 Jan. 2013) (employee entitled to refuse offers of new work from the employer if the conditions were substantially less favorable to him than those prevailing for similar work in the locality). These labor standards protections arise from long-standing federal requirements described in UIPL No. 41-98 (17 August 1998).

Unreasonable job offer conditions A claimant can turn down job offers if the commute or shift is not reasonable for the applicant. Commute is relative to the area (a twenty-file mile commute in Milwaukee could be too long but normal and expected in rural Wisconsin). And, a shift not previously worked by the claimant can also be grounds for declining the job. So, a nurse who typically worked first shift can decline a third shift job offer if she has little to no experience working third shifts. See DWD 128 for the details.

WinterWampa

Update on 2017 unemployment legislation

The first and probably only hearing on the Advisory Council agreed-on bill, SB399, is slated for 12:30 today, 4 October 2017, at the Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform in 201 Southeast of the Capitol.

This bill contains the Department’s proposals that the Advisory Council has approved (previously described in this post). Prior drafts of the bill are available here and here.

NOTE: The Advisory Council rejected Department proposals D17-03 (assessing employers for failing to provide employee records) and D17-06 (changing the burden of proof in certain unemployment cases) at the 9 August 2017 council meeting.

During discussions, management members of the Advisory Council made the following proposals:

  • Repeal the quit exception in Wis. Stat. § 108.04(7)(e). Under this provision, a claimant who quits a job within 30 days of being hired may retain their eligibility for unemployment benefits if the job that the claimant quit was not “suitable work” to begin with under Wis. Stat. § 108.04(8) OR the claimant could have refused to accept the under the federally-required labor standards provisions of Wis. Stat. § 108.04(9).
  • Treat state and federal holidays as working days for partial benefits if the employer is closed on those holidays. This provision is similar to what the Governor previously vetoed when added to the 2013 budget bill and which the council declined. See this post and this post.
  • Reduce the maximum number of benefit weeks based on the unemployment rate to 22 weeks when the unemployment rate is below 7% and 18 weeks when the unemployment rate is below 5%. The Council previously rejected this proposal from legislators. See this post and this post.
  • Amend definitions of misconduct and substantial fault in some way.

Labor representatives on the council made the following proposals:

  • Increase maximum weekly benefit rate (WBR) by $10 in 2018 and by another $10 in 2019.
  • Amend the trigger for tax schedule D to $1.8 billion. The current threshold for schedule D (the schedule with the lowest unemployment taxes) is $1.2 billion in the trust fund as of June 30th of the proceeding tax year.
  • Increase the taxable wage base in 2019 to $16,500 and then index that wage base in subsequent years.

The only available information about these proposals is available from this Department memorandum and a limited fiscal analysis. The Management proposals are not detailed in either document, and the description of the labor proposals is very general.

NOTE: An explanation for why management wanted changes to substantial fault and misconduct is provided, however:

Due to recent decisions of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals regarding discharge for misconduct and substantial fault, the Management members of the Council propose to amend the definitions of “misconduct” and “substantial fault” in order to clarify legislative intent.

At the 9 August 2017 council meeting, the Advisory Council decided that none of these proposals would be taken up.

Finally, the fiscal estimate from the Department for SB399 has this information:

Assumptions Used in Arriving at Fiscal Estimate The bill makes various changes in the unemployment insurance (Ul) law, which is administered by the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). Compliance to the bill’s components will require one time IT work of 3,930 hours and one time administration work of 1,180 hours costing a total of $444,500. The funding will come from the UI Federal Administration grant. It is expected that the proposed changes will increase collections and save the UI Trust Fund $1,250,000 annually.

Long-Range Fiscal Implications It is expected that the proposed changes will increase collections and save the UI Trust Fund $1,250,000 annually.

These savings are largely due to the changes set forth in proposal D17-07 regarding new mechanisms for intercepting tax refunds, lottery payments, state vendor payments, and unclaimed property of taxpayers. See D17-07 at 19 (but note that the original estimates in D17-07 called for much more debt collection from employers to the tune of ~$3 million in light of all the changes being enacted in that proposal).

Department unemployment proposals in 2017

At the 19 January 2017 meeting of the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, the Depatment introduced nine proposals. At the 16 March 2017 Advisory Council meeting, the Department introduced a tenth proposal. Here is a rundown of those proposals and their current status as of 23 May 2017.

D17-01 Charging benefits to employers in concealment cases, revised

This provision will allow the Department to charge any benefits paid out in concealment cases to employers who do not provide wage information to the Department rather than charging the allegedly concealed unemployment benefits in question to the balancing account. The problem the Department is trying to address is that employers who are not being charged for unemployment benefits being paid out do not have a financial incentive to respond to Department inquiries.

For example, an employee gets laid from her full-time factory job. After a few weeks, she lands a part-time gig waiting tables on weekends at a banquet/wedding establishment. The employee makes a mistake about reporting her part-time tip income from the banquet employer, however. A year later, that employer does not respond to the Department’s inquiries for that tip income. The Department charges concealment against the employee anyway, and the employee does not appeal the determination for some reason (for example, she never received the concealment determination). Under this proposal, the banquet employer will now have the concealment over-payment lodged against its unemployment account, even though this employee never collected any unemployment benefits from that employer’s account.

As the February 16th meeting of the Advisory Council, the Department revised the proposal so that employers failing to provide the requested wage information would be fined $100 and those fines would be used for program integrity. As the Department explains, this additional funding would provide the Department with more than $100,000 for additional “concealment” prosecutions (footnotes omitted):

Based on 2016 data, there were 5,038 work and wage determinations with an overpayment due to concealment that were detected from a cross match or by the agency. These were chosen as these investigations rely heavily on employer information for the determination to be accurate. According to subject matter experts within the Benefit Operations Bureau, approximately 20% of work and wage information verification forms are not received or are incomplete. That results in approximately 1,007 work and wage concealment determinations made annually when employers fail to respond or fail to provide complete information. A total of 1,007 determinations with a $100 civil penalty would result in up to $100,700 annually in recouped penalties that would flow to the UI Program Integrity Fund.

At the 11 May 2017 Advisory Council meeting, the Department made the surprise announcement that IT changes would be needed to address the council’s questions and concerns (there was no description provided about what those questions and concerns were) and that the proposal was being withdrawn until the Department could implement the needed IT changes necessary for this proposal.

D17-02 Joint and several liability for fiscal agents

The Department memo explains the problem being addressed here (footnotes omitted):

Individuals who receive long-term support services in their home through government-funded care programs are domestic employers under Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance law. These employers receive financial services from fiscal agents, who directly receive and disperse government program funds. The fiscal agent is responsible for reporting employees who provide services for the domestic employers to the Department, and for paying unemployment tax liability on behalf of the employer. Currently, approximately 16,000 of the 19,000 domestic employers in Wisconsin receive government-funded care and use a fiscal agent. These employers incur tax liability when fiscal agents fail to file quarterly reports or fail to make tax liability payments. It is difficult to collect delinquent tax from domestic employers who use fiscal agents because these employers are typically collection-proof.

The goal here is to make the fiscal agents liable for the unemployment taxes at issue.

Because elder care services are statutorily distinct in Wisconsin from child care services connected to special needs or special education, it is not clear whether this proposal encompasses both programs. Also, while the proposal only speaks about government-funded care, much care (especially elder care) is paid for through fiscal agents without any government funds (many who have or are caring for elderly parents do so without government assistance at least initially). So, the proposal could be much more significant than originally framed.

It is also not all that clear what this proposal actually accomplishes. The Commission has explained that, before the question of employee status can be addressed, the issue of which employing unit (and hence employer) for which the services at issue are being provided must be examined.

This said, the commission would emphasize that as a general matter, an issue of whether a claimant provides certain services as an “employee” should not be resolved — indeed, often can not be resolved — without first deciding, expressly, what employing unit the claimant provides those services “for” within the meaning of Wis. Stat. § 108.02(12)(a). For the reasons discussed above, this is just as true in a § 108.09 claimant benefit entitlement case as it is in a § 108.10 employer tax liability case.

Dexter-Dailey v. Independent Disability Services Inc, UI Hearing No. 07002206JV (2 November 2007) (finding in the unique circumstances of this case that an individual’s status as an employee could be determined without first considering who the employer in question was); see also Community Partnerships Inc., UI Hearing No. S0600013MD (22 February 2008) (while caregivers were undeniably providing services “for” the individual clients and their families, these caregivers were also providing services “for” the named employer by discharging its obligation to see to it that these services were provided).

In County of Door, the Commission examined at length the circumstances of support services being offered to a disabled individual through a county program and discussed numerous cases that all indicated the county and not the disabled individual was the employer of record.

These decisions are persuasive. While the specific programs under which the funds originated and the care was provided were somewhat different in these cases than in the case of Hoosier and Paul [the claimants], the general principles are the same. These cases establish that, notwithstanding that a disabled person derives a benefit from care being provided to them under the auspices of a county program, it is appropriate to conclude that in such cases the services are being provided “for” the county — which bears the responsibility for seeing to it that such care is provided, and which arranges for and oversees the provision of such care. Here, as in the cases just discussed, the County benefited from the services being provided by Hoosier and Paul, in that pursuant to its application for the BIW funds, the County had assumed an obligation to see to Susan’s care. The care provided by Hoosier and Paul to Susan met the County’s obligation.

County of Door, UI Hearing No. S0500025AP (28 March 2007). Given this complexity in how the services are being provided, joint and several liability may only serve as a band-aid to the much more complicated problem of getting fiscal agents to comply with their legal requirements and making those using those services aware of what is actually going on legally about employment coverage. As the Commission noted in Community Partnerships Inc.:

That is precisely the reason that the “fiscal agent” provisions were created. In the absence of such provisions, the disabled individual (or their legal guardian), would bear the burden of having to handle all of the normal responsibilities of a UI-covered employer, including filing required reports and remitting required contributions on the “payroll” paid to the caregiver, and dealing with investigations and hearings on appeals. What §§ 46.27(5)(i) and 47.035 allow is for a social service agency to take over that administrative role, which disabled individuals (and their guardians and or family members) are ill-equipped to handle. What § 108.02(13)(k) in turns allows is for this to happen without the social service agency thereby being considered to be the actual “employer”.

So, the real problem at issue is that the fiscal agents in question are not actually performing their responsibilities as fiscal agents for their clientele, i.e., paying the unemployment taxes that are due.

The council approved of this measure at the April 20th meeting.

D17-03 Employer assessment for failing to provide records

The Department memo provides a good explanation of what this proposal seeks to accomplish (footnotes omitted).

Under current law, employing units are required to maintain work records and must allow the Department to audit those records. When the Department intends to audit an employer, it sends a written notice to the employer requesting information regarding the employer’s employment records. If the employer does not respond, the Department issues a second written request to the employer. If the employer fails to respond to the second written request, the Department issues a subpoena to the employer. When the Department issues a subpoena, the Department must pay a fee to have the subpoena served.

About 40% of employers served with subpoenas provide an inadequate response or fail to respond to the subpoena. When an employer fails to comply with a subpoena, the Department’s remedy is enforce the subpoena in Circuit Court requesting that the employer be held in contempt. This is a time-consuming process that the Department has not historically used.

The Department proposes to change the law to assess an administrative penalty of $500.00 for a person’s failure to produce subpoenaed records to the Department. The Department will rescind the penalty if the employer fully complies with the subpoena within 20 calendar days of the issuance of the penalty. The intent of this proposal is to ensure employer compliance with requests for wage data.

D17-04 Ineligibility for concealment of holiday, vacation, termination, or sick pay

This proposal expands the zero eligibility for concealment that presently takes place when wages are not reported to any failure to report vacation or holiday pay. Charles O’Neill v. Riteway Bus Service Inc., UI Hearing No. 15600518MW and 15600519MW (16 May 2015) at n.4 explains:

Vacation pay and holiday pay are treated as “wages” for purposes of the partial benefit formula, but they are not wages. See Wis. Stat. § 108.05(3); UID-M 13-26, issued Dec. 6, 2013, and revised Dec. 9, 2013. If a claimant conceals vacation or holiday pay, it is considered concealment of a material fact under Wis. Stat. § 108.04(11)(a), and the partial wage formula applies. Concealment of wages, on the other hand, falls under Wis. Stat. § 108.04(11)(b). If a claimant conceals wages in any given week, the claimant is ineligible to receive any benefits for that week.

The Advisory Council approved of this measure at the April 20th meeting.

D17-05

This proposal is similar to one the Advisory Council previously rejected, D12-08, at the 1 April 2013 council meeting. In this version, the Department explains (footnote omitted):

The department may request information from unemployment benefit claimants in order to ensure that they are eligible for benefits. Under current law, a claimant is ineligible for benefits for the week in which the claimant fails to answer the department’s eligibility questions, and any subsequent weeks, until the claimant responds. A claimant who later answers the department’s eligibility questions is retroactively eligible for benefits beginning with the week in which they failed to answer the questions, if otherwise eligible.

The department proposes to amend the law to provide that claimants who fail to answer eligibility questions are ineligible beginning with the week involving the eligibility issue, not the week in which the claimant fails to answer the department’s questions. This proposed amendment clarifies that, if the department questions a claimant’s eligibility, the department will hold the claimant’s benefits until the claimant responds in order to reduce improper payments.

The council approved of this measure at the April 20th meeting. This proposal may conflict with the holding in California Department of Human Resources Development v. Java, 402 U.S. 121, 91 S.Ct. 1347, 28 L.Ed.2d 666 (1971) that unemployment benefits be paid “promptly.” See also UIPL-1145 (12 Nov. 1971) (“Determinations on issues arising in connection with new claims may be considered on time within the meaning of the Court’s requirement for promptness if accomplished no later than the second week after the week in which the claim is effective.”) and UIPL No. 04-01 (27 Oct. 2000) (similar).

D17-06 Changing the standard of proof in all UI cases, revised

This proposal seeks to make preponderance of the evidence the burden of proof for all unemployment cases. At present, claimant concealment cases require that the concealment at issue be proven by clear and convincing evidence. See, e.g., Holloway v. Mahler Enterprises Inc., UI Hearing No. 11606291MW (4 Nov. 2011). This proposal would undo the holdings in these cases as well as in misconduct cases involving theft. See, e.g., Kircher v. Stinger Tackle, UI Hearing No. 92201671RH (24 June 1994). Cases concerning whether an employer’s failure to pay unemployment taxes was willful or not would also be affected. See. e.g., Henry A. Warner, UI Hearing No. S9100679MW (16 July 1993) (clear and convincing evidence needed for showing the kind of fraudulent conduct at issue for a willful failure to pay unemployment taxes).

The only rationale provided by the Department is that Minnesota has a universal standard of proof in its unemployment cases. The Department fails to note that numerous other states do NOT have a universal burden of proof in their unemployment cases. The proposal also does not deal with Wisconsin court decisions that hold that fraud must be proven by clear and convincing evidence, a higher degree of proof than in ordinary civil cases. Kamuchey v. Trzesniewski, 8 Wis.2d 94, 98, 98 N.W.2d 403 (1959), citing Schroeder v. Drees, 1 Wis.2d 106, 83 N.W.2d 707 (1957), Eiden v. Hovde, 260 Wis. 573, 51 N.W.2d 531 (1952). As the Wisconsin Supreme Court explained in Wangen v. Ford Motor Co., 97 Wis.2d 260, 299-300, 294 N.W.2d 437 (1980):

This court has required a higher burden of proof, i.e., to a reasonable certainty by evidence that is clear, satisfactory and convincing (Wis. J.I. — Civil Nos. 205 and 210), “[i]n the class of cases involving fraud, of which undue influence is a specie, gross negligence, and civil actions involving criminal acts.” Kuehn v. Kuehn, 11 Wis.2d 15, 26, 104 N.W.2d 138 (1960). See, e.g., Klipstein v. Raschein, 117 Wis. 248, 253, 94 N.W. 63 (1903) (whether fraud occurred); Lang v. Oudenhoven, 213 Wis. 666, 668, 252 N.W. 167 (1934) (whether moral turpitude existed in cases of fraud); Martell v. Klingman, 11 Wis.2d 296, 310-311, 105 N.W.2d 446 (1960) (whether gross negligence existed); Comment to Wis. J.I. — Civil No. 2401, Misrepresentation: Intentional Deceit (whether intentional deceit occurred); and Poertner v. Poertner, 66 Wis. 644, 647, 29 N.W. 386 (1886) (factual issue of adultery in divorce action). This burden of proof, referred to as the middle burden of proof, requires a greater degree of certitude than that required in ordinary civil cases but a lesser degree than that required to convict in a criminal case.

NOTE: there are generally three standards for the burden of proof in legal matters: preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing, and beyond a reasonable doubt.

D17-07 Revisions to collections statutes, revised

This proposal seeks to make numerous changes to the Department’s collection efforts.

  • Attempts to undo a recent holding in Wisconsin bankruptcy court, In re Beck (Bankr. E.D. Wis., 2016), that the personal unemployment debts of claimants are not to be treated as “secured” debts for bankruptcy purposes. Under this decision, unemployment debts can be discharged or written off and considered un-collectable, unlike employer debts. The Department wants to reverse that result by rewriting how claimant over-payments are described in state law. The proposal seeks to accomplish this change by removing references to employer, employing units, and s.108.10 and thereby making unemployment collection provisions generic to any and all “persons.”
  • Increasing the penalty for third-parties who do not cooperate with the Department’s collection efforts (such as employers for wage garnishment or banks for account liens) to 50% of the amount at issue and adding those penalty amounts to the Department’s “program integrity” fund.
  • Removing the 20% threshold for personal liability for an employer’s unpaid unemployment taxes.
  • Expand the scope of state payments eligible for an intercept to satisfy delinquent employer taxes. Currently, these intercepts only occur for claimant over-payments.

A May 23rd revision to this proposal included new language on pp.6 and 8 so that liens can be recorded even when an appeal is pending and indicated on p.10 that the Department would provide ten days notice for any warrants or liens it was seeking (in essence, codifying the Department’s current practice)

The Advisory Council approved of this measure at the 23 May 2017 meeting with one change: the ten day notice for warrants and liens would instead be fifteen days notice.

D17-08 Many miscellaneous changes, revised, revised again

This catchall proposal contains numerous technical changes. The Advisory Council approved this proposal at the 23 May 2017 meeting.

Noticeably, this proposal is the first which provides some fiscal numbers on the number of positions to be funded from the Department’s program integrity slush fund that are outside of the state’s normal biennial budget:

In the schedule under section 20.005 (3) of the statutes for the appropriation to the department of workforce development under section 20.445 (1) (v) of the statutes, as affected by the acts of 2017, the dollar amount is increased by $1,630,000 for the first fiscal year of the fiscal biennium in which this subsection takes effect for the purpose of increasing the authorized FTE positions for the department of workforce development by 5.0 SEG positions annually and providing additional funding for the purpose of conducting program integrity activities, investigating concealment, and investigating worker misclassification. In the schedule under section 20.005 (3) of the statutes for the appropriation to the department of workforce development under section 20.445 (1) (v) of the statutes, as affected by the acts of 2017, the dollar amount is increased by $1,630,000 for the second fiscal year of the fiscal biennium in which this subsection takes effect for the purpose of increasing the authorized FTE positions for the department of workforce development by 5.0 SEG positions annually and providing additional funding for the purpose of conducting program integrity activities, investigating concealment, and investigating worker misclassification.

The Advisory Council gave its go-ahead for this proposal on May 23rd.

D17-09 Miscellaneous rule changes

This proposal is a catch-all of various rule changes. The Department did not provide actual language of the proposed changes. Perhaps the most significant change here is that the wait-time for unemployment hearings will be ten minutes for all parties (at present, the appealing party has fifteen minutes to arrive before the hearing is closed, while the non-appealing party has five minutes to arrive late before the hearing starts). That is, under this new rule, an appealing party will need to arrive for a hearing set to start at 10:30am no later than 10:40am before that hearing will be closed and dismissed because the appealing party failed to appear.

The council approved of this measure at the March 16th meeting. As a result, the scope statement is now available.

D17-10 Drug testing changes, revised

Voluntary reporting by employers of either positive drug test results by job applicants or the applicants’ refusal to take a drug test has not been happening. And so, the Department has proposed various changes to make this voluntary reporting by employers more palatable.

The proposal cleans up some of the statutory language from the original drug-testing provisions. It also adds some options for how the Department will apply occupational drug-testing (when federal rules are finally put into place), reinforces the confidentiality of the drug testing at issue, and attempts to immunize employers from liability for reporting applicants’ drug test results.

NOTE: the liability immunization is more talk than substance, as federal ERISA and HIPAA laws that govern self-insured employers will preempt any and all state laws.

Finally, to take advantage of unspent funds, the Department proposes that leftover monies for drug testing and treatment be transferred to the Department’s program integrity efforts. So, the $500,000 slated for testing and treatment in FY2017 will be added to the Department’s mushrooming slush fund for finding claimant mistakes and charging them with concealment.

The council approved of this measure at the April 20th meeting.