On-line only claim filing

As of 1 September 2017, the Department mandated that all unemployment claims and all weekly claim certifications be filed on-line only.

As noted when the Department mandated in May 2017 that initial unemployment claims had to be filed on-line, federal guidelines indicate that on-line only requirements are problematic.

This new, more expansive mandate from the Department seems to ignore these cautions from federal authorities about maintaining effective options for those with limited on-line access or limited English proficiency. For instance, the Department seems only to be providing assistance for on-line filing, not any actual alternatives to on-line filing.

At the very bottom of this page, a person having trouble with on-line claims finds this advice:

For help using online services or if you are truly unable to go online call 414-438-7713 during business hours.

The general page about unemployment services also indicates that on-line filing is required. For those who want help with their clams, this advice is offered:

For help using online services call 414-438-7713 during business hours:

Monday — Friday 7:45 AM – 4:30 PM

Callers may be asked to call back on a specific day of the week.

Additionally, this same general page also explains just under the notice about reporting fraud that:

DWD is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. If you have a disability and need assistance with this information, please dial 7-1-1 for Wisconsin Relay Service. Please contact the Unemployment Insurance Division at 414-438-7713 to request information in an alternate format, including translated to another language.

In the claimants’ handbook, the advice for those who might have trouble with the on-line system is tucked away under the Filing a Weekly Claim Certification:

Important Points to Remember When Filing a Weekly Claim:

All questions apply to the specific calendar week for which you are claiming. For example, when asked if you quit a job, you are being asked if you quit during the week you are claiming. If you did not quit during that week, answer “NO.”

If you are truly unable to use online services to file your weekly claim, contact a Claims Specialist at 414-438-5395 during business hours. Claims Specialists are available to assist you.

In a FAQ about benefit filing, the Department explains:

The Unemployment Insurance Division is retiring the automated telephone filing system. Workers must now file online. Apply online at https://my.unemployment.wisconsin.gov. For help using online services call 414-438-7713 during business hours.

So, the Department is having claimants call for assistance to make their on-line claim work and not offering any alternatives to the on-line claim process. Moreover, these phone calls are NOT toll-free and can only occur during limited hours.

For those calling with limited English proficiency, my sources indicate that phone-service interpreters will be added to the call to help explain the on-line filing requirements to claimants. Those with limited access to the Internet — which is most of Wisconsin, as high-speed broadband is still not available to most homes in rural Wisconsin — are being told to file at their local libraries. Indeed, the Department has indicated on numerous occasions to ask librarians for assistance when filing their unemployment claims.

Finally, there are some doubts about the adequacy of the Spanish version of the on-line filing system for Spanish-speaking claimants.

NOTE: There is still no on-line option for Hmong-speaking claimants.

The terms of use for the on-line system declares:

DISCLAIMER FOR TRANSLATION

The Google™ translation feature is provided for informational purposes only. Please be advised that the Department of Workforce Development is unable to guarantee the accuracy of this translation service and is therefore not liable for any inaccurate information resulting from the translation application tool. Please consult with your own translator for accuracy if you are relying on the translation or are using this site for official business.

The US Dep’t of Labor has specifically held in UIPL 02-16 at 9 that machine translation — what google does when it translates — is NOT adequate and that these kinds of disclaimers are just silly. As explained on digitalgov.gov:

Some view disclaimers as the solution to justify an imperfect translation. Ask yourself and your managers: What are we trying to achieve? If an agency provides imperfect information but includes a disclaimer, the agency is essentially saying that it cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information they have provided. If so, how is this:

  • fulfilling a need?
  • fulfilling our mission?
  • serving the public?

Consider how you would react if you were reading information that had a disclaimer that said, very politely, that the agency can’t guarantee the integrity of the translation and, therefore, can’t guarantee the accuracy of the information it is giving you. A disclaimer on translated content works for the agency, but it does not work for the person trying to accomplish a task.

As already noted, this on-line mandate seems little more than an elaborate trap for charging claimants with fraud when they get confused and make a mistake on their claims. The initial screen claimants see with the on-line system — even before they create a user-id and password — makes this goal front and center:

Initial warning screen

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Claim-filing in Wisconsin at record low but economy not booming

A June press release from the Department of Workforce Development declared Wisconsin’s record low unemployment rate:

BLS Data: Wisconsin’s 3.1% Unemployment Rate Tied for 7th Lowest in Nation

State’s Labor Force Participation Rate also tied for 5th highest in country

MADISON – Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Secretary Ray Allen released the following statement following today’s U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) release showing Wisconsin tied for the 7th lowest unemployment rate in the nation, significantly lower than the national rate. The release also noted that Wisconsin’s addition of 40,400 total non-farm jobs from May 2016 to May 2017 was statistically significant and Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate was tied for 5th highest in the country:

“Not only is Wisconsin’s 3.1 percent unemployment rate a near record-low for our state, but our rate is lower than that of 42 other states, including the neighboring states of Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, and tied with Iowa for 7th lowest in the country,” Secretary Allen said. “We also are tied for the 5th highest labor force participation rate in the country, ahead of the neighboring states of Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. Under Governor Walker’s leadership, Wisconsin’s employers and communities are reaping economic rewards from a winning combination of a best-in-class workforce and innovative. proven worker training programs.”

Highlights of Friday’s BLS release of state-by-state employment and unemployment data for May 2017 include:

  • Wisconsin’s 3.1 percent unemployment rate tied for the 7th lowest in the nation in May 2017 and was significantly lower than the national rate of 4.3 percent.
  • Wisconsin added a statistically significant 40,400 total non-farm jobs from May 2016 to May 2017.
  • Wisconsin’s unemployment rate decline of 1.0 percent from 4.1% in May 2016 to 3.1% in May 2017 was statistically significant.
  • Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate of 68.8% tied for 5th best in the nation in May 2017.

Other indicators of Wisconsin’s economy include:

  • Both total labor force and employment in Wisconsin remained at all-time high in May, while the number of unemployed individuals was its lowest point since February 2000.
  • The rate of 3.1 percent is the second-lowest rate on record for Wisconsin (the lowest rate was 3.0 percent in May-July 1999).
  • Wisconsin’s January (3.9 percent) to May (3.1 percent) unemployment rate decline of 0.8 percentage points in 2017 is the steepest January-May decline since 1983.
  • Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate increased by 0.2 percentage points to 68.8 percent, while the U.S. labor force participation rate decreased to 62.7 percent in May.
  • Initial UI claims ended 2016 at their lowest level in their last 30 years. Year 2017 initial UI claims are running at their lowest levels since 1989.
  • Continuing unemployment claims ended 2016 at their lowest level since 1973. Continuing unemployment claims in Wisconsin are running the lowest in at least the past 30 years.

Friday’s BLS ‘Regional and State Employment and Unemployment Summary’ report

The last two points deserve particular note:

  • Initial UI claims ended 2016 at their lowest level in their last 30 years. Year 2017 initial UI claims are running at their lowest levels since 1989.
  • Continuing unemployment claims ended 2016 at their lowest level since 1973. Continuing unemployment claims in Wisconsin are running the lowest in at least the past 30 years.

These indicate that people have stopped filing unemployment claims at levels when in 1990 the population in Wisconsin was around 4.9 million and per capita income was $18,072 or in 1975 when the state population was around 4.6 million and per capita income was $6,086. For comparison, in 2014 the state’s population was nearly 5.8 million and per capita income was $44,585. And, from 1990 to the start of 2015, the civilian labor force in Wisconsin increased from 2,567,200 to 3,120,800 persons.

Furthermore, when the unemployment rate was similarly low in the late 1990s, per capita income rose by over 5% most of those years. As recent economic reports from COWS establish, however, income in Wisconsin is currently stagnant for most Wisconsin residents except for the very few at the top of the income ladder.

So, there are big contradictions in the Wisconsin labor force. People in Wisconsin are working and not filing unemployment claims. But, they are not getting any wage increases from employers who should be having trouble finding job applicants and so trying to entice people to switch jobs with offers of higher wages and greater job benefits.

Perhaps the Department has created a system where unemployment is much higher than the data indicates because people are NOT filing unemployment claims but instead taking low-wage, part-time work as a substitute in large part because full-time, high wage work is not available from employers who are not expanding or growing their businesses. COWS 2017 report on working Wisconsin reveals that the wealth and economic gains at the very top obscures the economic stagnation for the rest of the state’s residents. The August jobs report reinforces this conclusion, as Wisconsin job growth this summer remained stagnant (private sector jobs in July were revised to a 600 decline, August preliminary numbers indicate a 5,200 loss in private sector employment, and only June shows an anemic increase of 1,300 jobs after a revision).

 

SSDI budget cuts in Trump’s proposed budget

Wisconsin Workers’ Compensation Experts has a good blog post about the proposed cuts in Social Security Disability Income (“SSDI”) benefits in the proposed Trump budget.

The claimed cuts are allegedly about fraudulent SSDI claims by people who can supposedly work. Actual SSDI fraud is minuscule, however.

Furthermore, SSDI benefits represent crucial wages for disabled individuals based on their prior earnings. As the blog post explains:

Through their contributions to Social Security, workers earn a measure of protection against disability retirement and death. (Disability insurance protects a worker against loss of earnings due to a significant work limiting impairment, and workers earn this protection by having worked and contributed to Social Security.) Many of my work-injured employees ultimately end up on Social Security Disability and this protection is particularly important to older Americans. Most people receiving Social Security Disability benefits are in their 50s or early 60s and most had only unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. Without a college degree, benefits are not significant (averaging about $1,200 per month). However, over half of Social Security beneficiaries rely on these benefits for 75% or more of their total income.

There is also already an existing and widespread program in place to encourage and facilitate SSDI benefit recipients returning to regular work. Ticket to work is a free and voluntary program by the Social Security Administration to assist SSDI benefit recipients with returning to the workforce. The employment support efforts available for SSDI benefit recipients are extensive. Presentations and training about the program are also available. The budget proposal from the current President appears to be little more than a massive cut to benefits and training and support without any acknowledgment of the difficulties disabled folk have in the workplace. Because of Ticket to Work efforts, many SSDI benefits recipients are already working limited jobs. They just cannot find the kind of full-time, regular work they once had prior to their disabilities.

Note as well that in Wisconsin, SSDI benefit recipients are prohibited from receiving unemployment benefits. Federal law, however, prohibits a similar disqualification for individuals receiving regular Social Security benefits.

NOTE: Because prohibitions on regular Social Security benefits are not allowed, the prohibition on unemployment benefits when receiving SSDI benefits also ends when an individual’s SSDI benefits become regular Social Security benefits — i.e., when the claimant reaches his or her Social Security retirement age.

Accordingly, Wisconsin employers have a financial incentive to hire SSDI benefits recipients, as these employees are prohibited from receiving unemployment benefits when laid off regardless of the layoff reason.

For those receiving SSDI benefits, however, the budget proposal represents a second strike: having already lost eligibility for unemployment benefits in Wisconsin, they are now slated to lose their SSDI benefits as well.

Trump’s UI budget proposals

Hat tip to Daniel J.B. Mitchell for this article discussing how the current President’s budget proposal could affect unemployment funding:

Trump’s budget presents new challenge to California’s long suffering unemployment fund
John Myers LA Times    5-28-17
After years of the state being deep in debt to the federal government for a loan covering the unemployment benefits of millions of Californians, state government officials have been promising the system was well on its way to stability.
And then came President Trump’s federal budget plan, with new rules and penalties for states whose jobless benefits outpace available dollars.
To understand what might be coming, it’s important to see where we’ve been. Unemployment insurance (UI) offers a weekly stipend of up to $450 for most workers who lose their job. The payments, for a maximum of 26 weeks, are paid from a payroll tax charged to employers.
Not surprisingly, unemployment payments rise and fall with the economy. In 2009, during the worst part of a recession when the unemployment rate hit 12.5% that October, state and federal government money was needed to keep California’s UI fund solvent. Payroll taxes simply couldn’t keep up with demand.
It’s worth noting that analysts saw this problem coming. State lawmakers made unemployment checks larger and raised the minimum wage in recent years, but the state portion of employer contribution rates hasn’t changed since 1984. The recession turned the problem into a crisis.
By the end of 2012, California owed $10.2 billion to the federal government for loans to the state’s UI trust fund. The debt has slowly been paid off, thanks to economic improvement that’s cut unemployment to 4.8% as of April. There’s also been a temporary surcharge on the federal government’s portion of the employer payroll tax. Current estimates are that the state’s UI fund will again be solvent in 2018.
But the president’s budget may present a new wrinkle. The Trump proposal specifically calls for a new “solvency standard” for unemployment funds, a requirement that states keep enough cash in their UI funds to avoid going into the red.
Here’s where things could get dicey. Because California’s UI fund remains in the red, any new federal mandates would almost certainly mean a new short-term cost to employers. The president’s budget suggests states should have enough money to pay unemployment benefits for six months of an “average recession,” though it doesn’t define what that means. States failing to meet the standard would have new limits on loans— the same kind of loans that kept jobless Californians with money in their pockets during the last recession.
Then there’s the reality that the only real solutions for California’s unemployment fund are to permanently raise the employer payroll tax, shrink the benefits or eligibility rules for workers or some combination of the two. An overhaul suggested by the state’s independent Legislative Analyst’s Office last fall included possibly cutting maximum jobless benefits by $75 a week and denying eligibility to some of the state’s lowest income workers.
So what’s driving the effort in Washington? It doesn’t look as ifit’s about being fiscally conservative. The Trump administration budget suggests new rules on state unemployment funds are in preparation for a proposal to create a federal mandatory paid leave of at least six weeks for workers — similar to California’s existing program, and a new mandate to likely be paid out of state UI funds.
Few state officials would disagree that California’s system for helping millions of unemployed workers was unprepared for the last economic downturn and that big changes to its financing system are long overdue. And so maybe the president’s budget plan — even if it fails to fully take effect — could be the needed spark for Sacramento lawmakers to roll up their sleeves on a long-term fix.
This proposal could well affect Wisconsin as well, despite Wisconsin’s unemployment fund being $1.2 billion in the black at the moment. This danger exists because the fund is still historically underfunded, according to the latest Department presentation. As explained in this presentation, the fund’s current “health” is due not to adequate funding so much as to record lows in benefit payments to claimants. Accordingly, modeling how the fund will behave in the future is difficult at best, and three possibilities are available: the historically low benefit payment levels continue, benefit payment levels return to normal, or something in between. Wisconsin’s unemployment fund only avoids danger with the first possibility.

UI claims-filing trouble in PA

Pennsylvania has experienced an administrative meltdown with its unemployment system that has led to months long waits for unemployment benefits to issue after many state employees were furloughed because of budget shortfalls. The auditor report details how a lack of personnel has led to extraordinary delays by the state in simply processing unemployment claims.

Community legal groups have been complaining about this meltdown for some time. See here and here.

Without additional funding, these problems are only going to get worse. As Community Legal Services of Philadelphia explains in a press release:

As badly as the UC program has served unemployed Pennsylvanians since the furloughs in December, the report indicates that without state supplemental funding, it will get far worse.  It projects that without state supplemental funding of $12.1 million in 2017 and $20.2 million in 2018, three more service centers will be closed and their staff furloughed.  The remaining staff will not be able to do more than process claims, leading to an administrative system conducted solely on-line.  Even communications between staff and claimants will be electronic.

There is precedent for an entirely on-line system.  In 2011, Florida began requiring all UC filings to be on-line.  Since then, UC recipiency has fallen to 1 in 8 unemployed workers, the lowest rate in the country.  See Ain’t No Sunshine: Fewer than One in Eight Unemployed Workers in Florida Is Receiving Unemployment Insurance (NELP 2015).

This experience in Florida provides plenty of caution for Wisconsin’s announced push to go to an on-line only system. As described in this blog, benefit payments in Florida have plummeted under its on-line system.

On-line only claims

The Department has announced that effective 24 May 2017, the on-line claims-filing process will be required for claimants.

The Department is also providing some additional information about work search requirements for laid off workers. There are no actual legal changes here, but the Department is providing one-stop access to employers and employees about the forms needed for getting work searches waived for eight weeks and then another four weeks.

The small print for the on-line only announcement, however, indicates that the phone system will still be available until some future unknown date. Since the on-line system is still English-only, federal requirements for ensuring access indicate that limiting access to an English-only on-line system could be a major problem.

Methods of Providing Access. For languages spoken by a significant number or proportion of the eligible service population, individuals should be able to learn about, apply for, and maintain eligibility in the relevant language(s) for every program delivery avenue (i.e., online, in person, and/or phone). The state agency should also ensure it has reasonable methods in place for identifying and reaching other LEP individuals who speak a language that is not spoken by a significant number or proportion of the eligible service population. As state UI agencies move to almost exclusively website-driven services, there is an increased likelihood that LEP individuals will face barriers to accessing information and claims-related access in violation of Title VI and regulations promulgated by WIA, as amended, and WIOA, and as described above.

UIPL No. 02-16, State Responsibilities for Ensuring Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits at 8. So, claimants should continue to use the phone system, especially when the on-line system can be used to entrap claimants into concealment for nothing more than a claim-filing mistake.

Initial warning screen

Unemployment is going away

The March 2nd edition of the Isthmus has an excellent cover story about unemployment changes the past few years. Make sure to read it.

The Department’s press release that same day provides some additional insight into what is going on with unemployment in this state.

Two issues arising from these news items deserve additional comment.

First, the response from the Department in the Isthmus story indicates that this expansion of concealment to include mistakes is intended.

Now, honest mistakes can lead to fines and criminal charges, Forberger says.

Tyler Tichenor, a DWD spokesperson, counters that the change was made “to make the definition clearer for claimants so they could better understand what they need to do to file a claim accurately.”

John Dipko, another department spokesperson, says the state is making a concerted effort to crack down on fraud and that referrals for prosecution began increasing even before the definition change.

“The number of referrals have gone up,” Dipko says. “We’ve been much more aggressive in referring the most egregious cases of fraud for consideration for possible prosecution.”

The change Mr. Tichenor is referring to is the 2015 change in the statutory definition of concealment. He is NOT referring to providing simpler explanations of unemployment issues for claimants or making the filing process easier to follow. No claimant (or employer for that matter) should be expected to review a legal statute simply to make sure he or she is doing what the Department wants him or her to do. Such a policy is akin to the IRS making everyone read the Internal Revenue Code when filing their taxes. Yes, the statutes govern. But, the agency responsible for carrying out those statutes has a duty to explain those statutory requirements as simply as possible and in a way that is not intended to confuse and trip folks up.

But, confusion and mistakes are the whole point of unemployment concealment now. For instance, the on-line filing process is now more complex, not less, with numerous requirements for which any single mistake can now lead to a charge of unemployment concealment.

And, this concealment push cannot be under-stated. When filing on-line, the first thing a claimant sees, even before he or she creates a user-id and a password, is this screen:

UI claim initial screen

Notice the specific language being used here — “If you make a mistake or forget to report a material fact related to your claim . . . ” The Department is officially declaring here that a simple mistake or even forgetfulness can be the basis for a concealment charge.

Second, the Department’s press release about record-low unemployment claims and a sudden rise in employees’ wages indicate how significant the Department’s changes in unemployment have been.

Four issues in the Department press release on March 2nd highlight the changes being wrought by the Department. First, the Department reveals that September 2015 to September 2016 job growth in Wisconsin was 29,486 total jobs and 25,608 private-sector jobs. When compared to prior job growth numbers, this trend indicates that job growth is actually slowing in Wisconsin — 37,432 jobs from March 2015 to March 2016 and 39,652 jobs from March 2015 to March 2015.

In light of the Department’s push for charging claimants with concealment for their honest mistakes and the loss of work search waivers during the winter months for seasonal employees, three other points from the press release suggest what is actually going on.

  • Quarterly wages by covered private-sector employers grew by 7 percent year over year. Total wages grew by 7.5 percent over the year.

  • Initial UI claims ended 2016 at their lowest level since 1988. Continuing unemployment claims ended 2016 at their lowest level since 1973.
  • More people were employed last year in Wisconsin (November 2016) than at any point in our state’s history.

As indicated here, the number of people working in Wisconsin is at a record high level. (NOTE: this statistic could also be — and likely is as noted below — because the number of people in the state remains relatively flat.) This increase in working folk should indicate that Wisconsin has a “hot” job market. Employees would then have increased bargaining power and be willing to switch jobs when employers are less than fair or better opportunities appear to be available with other employers. Such a “hot” job market would suggest that unemployment claims would rise somewhat because of individuals trying out new jobs that do not work out or which prove to be less than hospitable. But, initial unemployment claims are at record lows. So, folks either are NOT leaving jobs at all or are NOT filing claims for unemployment benefits when job separations do happen (because of the Department’s concealment push). Finally, the fact that wages have jumped over 7% in one year without a “hot” labor market indicates that employers are voluntarily raising wages for the employees they already have even though labor turnover (signified by the record low number of claims being filed) is markedly down.

As indicated in the Isthmus cover story, employers this past winter were faced with employees who no longer had seasonal job search waivers when claiming unemployment benefits and so had to do four job searches a week along with all the other job search requirements the Department has enacted the past two years. Those employees are essentially making themselves available to be poached by other employers, and so the Department has created a competition for employees among employers where none existed before.

If employees were little more than replaceable cogs, this increased competition would still not lead to higher wages. But, for skilled work where employees are not interchangeable, employers need to keep their skilled labor because of the high replacement costs that arise when those skilled employees leave.

To avoid this whole government-created poaching regime, employers’ only real option is to keep their employees off of unemployment by “hiring” and paying them during winter months despite the lack of actual work available for these employees. In other words, some employers have found themselves handing out winter make-do work to keep their employees off of unemployment. With full wages (or even partial wages), these employees are doing financially much better than when they just received unemployment benefits that max out at $370 a week.

NOTE: as this COWS report indicates, the wage growth at issue here is a very recent development. In January 2017, the story in Wisconsin was the flat wage growth in this state.

Finally, this lack of unemployment benefits is affecting everyone — employers and employees — when the record low in continuing claims is considered. This statistic indicates that even when employees file a claim for unemployment benefits, that claim is stopped shortly thereafter because they are either denied benefits because of substantial fault or misconduct or because they fail to meet some new job registration requirement that Department has enacted. With no unemployment benefits available, the unemployed are out searching for jobs or they are leaving this state for greener pastures where jobs and unemployment benefits are available. The state’s relatively flat population growth the last few years — a 0.6% growth rate in 2010 is 0.2% in 2016 — bears this point out. Because of the Department’s drastic changes to unemployment, the state is certainly not becoming business friendly for most employers.