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.

AB819 signed into law

The Advisory Council Bill, AB819, was signed into law by Governor Walker and published on March 31st as 2015 Wis. Act 334. Details of this new law were described in this previous post about the bill.

The concealment changes will probably have the biggest impact on unemployment law. As noted previously, these changes mean that the Department will no longer need to show an intent to conceal when alleging concealment against claimants. Claimants will essentially be strictly liable for their mistakes and subject to steep and unforgiving concealment penalties.

Given the risk of making a mistake when filing an unemployment claim (especially as the claim filing process becomes increasingly complex), NO ONE SHOULD EVER FILE FOR UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS ANY LONGER. Since any mistake can now lead to a charge for concealment, claimants will be at the mercy of Department whims about when to consider a mistake as concealment or not.

If a person has no other choice but to file an unemployment claim, the only way to escape a concealment charge is to demonstrate that the mistake occurred because of advice from a Department representative. So, claimants should call up a Department representative and have that person walk him or her through the entire claim-filing process for EVERY weekly certification. Make sure to ask questions about everything that could possibly be an issue in your claim and to document the advice you receive from the representative about those issues. Note that is common for one representative to contradict the advice of a prior representative, so your notes about the advice you receive will be crucial to surviving a concealment charge.

Keep in mind that the Department has numerous notices during the claims-filing process about how folks should contact the Department with any questions they might have. So, take the Department up on this offer and actually ask for the kind of detailed advice you need to complete a successful unemployment claim.

Update on UI legislation

Advisory Council Bill AB819
Yesterday, the state senate passed the bill and messaged it to Governor Walker for his signature. This law consists of the following proposals:

  • A second SSDI prohibition, D15-01, to replace the current prohibition was approved in April 2015 and back-dated in May 2015. But, after the Department started winning the court cases challenging the old SSDI prohibition (see this post for the details), this proposal disappeared from the Department’s legislative draft at the council’s September 2015 meeting. But, after the Labor and Industry Review Commission ruled in November 2015 that departmental error had occurred when appeal tribunals (but not the Commission) had originally ruled in favor of claimants regarding dual receipt of SSDI and UI benefits (and so no repayment of UI benefits previously received was proper), this proposal re-emerged at the November 2015 council meeting in the Department’s legislative drafts. Why? This second SSDI prohibition is back-dated to January 2014, the effective date of the original SSDI prohibition.
  • D15-04 sets up essentially a backup insurance program for reimbursable employers who get their unemployment accounts swindled by identity fraud (and so have little to no hope of ever recovering the stolen benefits). The final recommendation from the council was for reimbursable employers to be taxed initially in order to create a fund of $1 million for covering themselves against identity fraud, essentially the second option of the three presented.
  • D15-05 corrects a hole in the statutes that accidentally left LLPs out of the definition of employer (see also this DWD memo on this issue).
  • The Advisory Council approved the Department’s appeals modernization proposal, D15-06, at the 7 January 2016 meeting. LRB draft language was prepped soon thereafter. Perhaps the most significant change in this proposal — notice by Internet in place of postal mail — has NOT received any discussion of comment from council members, however.
  • Proposed changes to the definition of claimant concealment in D15-08 are described in this previous post and described in a Department memo (discussed in this post), Additional criminal penalties for concealment in AB533 passed the Assembly but has yet to be passed by the Senate. To see what all the fuss is about, take a look at this January 21st Assembly Committee on Public Benefit Reform hearing regarding AB533 and other UI bills or read this LIRC memo on the proposed concealment changes. You can see and hear testimony against these concealment changes via this previous post.
  • Technical changes in D15-09 will allow the Department to distinguish able and available determinations from separation determinations.
  • D15-10 eliminates the publication of the claimant benefit tables within the statutes.
  • Major changes to the process for getting unemployment decisions reviewed in circuit court are set forth in D15-11. These changes were previously described here and here. The Labor and Industry Review Commission opposed these changes, which essentially reverses the 2016 Appeals Court decision in DWD v. LIRC.
  • D15-12 allows the same protocols for unemployment taxes in regards to fiscal agents in adult care to apply to fiscal agents in child care situations.
  • D15-13 ends the sunset date in 2034 for the program integrity fund (i.e., the fund for receiving some of the monies from concealment enforcement) since the Department now expects concealment monies to continue in perpetuity. See the next two proposals for why.
  • The Department’s proposals for a program integrity slush fund, D15-14 and D15-15.

Labor and Management Proposals
The Advisory Council bill also includes management and labor proposals.

On the management side, there will be significant changes to what will be considered suitable work:

  • During the first six weeks of a job search, suitable work that a claimant MUST accept will be those jobs that (1) do not have a lower grade of skill than one or more of his or her most recent jobs and (2) have had an hourly wage that is 75 percent or more of what the claimant previously earned in his or her most recent, highest paying job.
  • After the first six weeks, suitable work means any work the claimant is capable of performing regardless of prior experience, skills, or training, as long as the wages for that job are above the lowest quartile wage-level in the claimant’s relevant labor market.

Once a job offer is considered suitable work for a claimant, then the claimant only has good cause for declining the job offer if the claimant’s personal safety is at risk, the claimant’s sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with the work, the work entails an unreasonable commuting distance, or some other compelling reason makes accepting the offer unreasonable. These changes to what will be considered suitable work will also apply to those who tentatively accept a job and then quit within the first thirty days.

In addition, this accepted management proposal will either eliminate unemployment eligibility entirely for anyone receiving temporary or partial workers’ compensation benefits or mandate offsets against UI benefits for those receiving these kind of workers’ compensation benefits (the specific type of workers’ compensation benefit being received leads to the different kinds of treatment). In other words, the SSDI prohibition is being expanded to workers’ compensation benefits. Also, anyone making a mistake in how they report their specific workers’ compensation benefits will, under the new on-line filing system, likely face a concealment charge for his or her mistake in reporting the kind of workers’ compensation benefits he or she is receiving.

These management-sponsored changes will take effect four weeks after enactment.

The labor proposals that the council agreed to include:

  • repealing the mis-classification prohibitions in workers’ compensation and fair employment law,
  • creating an administrative penalty for mis-classification for unemployment purposes of $500 per employee (capped at $7,500) when construction employers (and only construction employers) knowingly and intentionally provide false information to the Department (NOTE: compare this definition with the proposed changes to claimant concealment) for the purpose of misclassifying or attempting to mis-classify an employee,
  • fining employees in painting and sheetrock work $1,000 per incident (capped at $10,000 per calendar year) when coerced into accepting non-employee status for unemployment purposes, and
  • fining construction employers $1,000 per employee (with a maximum of $25,000) for subsequent violations as well as possible referral for criminal prosecution.

These mis-classification changes will take effect six months after passage.

Budget Bill Fixes
The LIRC funding fix bill, discussed here, was enacted as 2015 Wisconsin Act 194.

The call in the budget bill for the Department to create suitable work rules for claimants has been eliminated by the management-sponsored changes to suitable work described above.

Other unemployment-related legislation
A bill to address an NLRB decision about frachisors and franchisees was signed into law as 2015 Wisconsin Act 203. I previously noted that:

unemployment is not mentioned once in the [Browning-Ferris Industries decision this law is intended to undo], so the applicability and purpose — let alone its effectiveness — of the state law changes in this proposed legislation are muddled at best. And, as DWD notes in its memo, the changes could be extremely problematic for some Wisconsin employers.

A re-writing of real estate agent law in Wisconsin has been enacted via 2015 Wisconsin Act 258. The original bill, AB456, was intended, in part, to remove real estate agents completely from unemployment coverage. Even though real estate services are not considered covered employment for unemployment purposes, agents who qualify for unemployment benefits through other work they do outside of real estate sales found themselves and their brokerages being brought into unemployment hearings whenever there was a change in their relationship. In short, even though there is no covered employment or even an employer, the real estate agent is still treated as an employee who must either quit with good cause or be discharged without misconduct or substantial fault from a brokerage firm in order to keep receiving unemployment benefits connected to non-real estate work. The legislation as-passed leaves this process in place. Real estate agents, however, will be excluded as employees from workers compensation coverage, workplace discrimination law, and other workplace laws. See Section 174 of the new Act.

Previously enacted legislation
2015 Wisconsin Act 86 contained the following three Department proposals:

  • D15-02 is a house-keeping change that allows the Department to issue determinations against out-of-state employers in combined wage claims for being at fault for an erroneous benefit payment to a claimant.
  • D15-03 applies the Treasury offset program to employers, as described previously in this post.
  • A renewed work-share program, D15-07.