DWD/Advisory Council bill going forward

The official Advisory Council/DWD bill has just been introduced, AB819. So, here is a rundown of what has been happening with unemployment law over the last several months, organized by proposal.

Department 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 and is now part of AB819. Why? This second SSDI prohibition is back-dated to January 2014, the effective date of the original SSDI prohibition.
  • 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. This proposal is part of AB416 and has been enacted in 2015 Wisconsin Act 86.
  • D15-03 applies the Treasury offset program to employers, as described previously in this post. This proposal is part of AB416 and has been enacted in 2015 Wisconsin Act 86. Because of this quick enactment, employers will be subject to treasury offsets for their 2015 tax returns for any unemployment taxes for which they have been found individually liable.
  • 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. This proposal is part of AB819.
  • 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). This proposal is part of AB819.
  • 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. This proposal is now part of AB819.
  • A renewed work-share program, D15-07, is part of AB416 and has been enacted as 2015 Wisconsin Act 86.
  • Proposed changes to the definition of claimant concealment in D15-08 (described in this previous post and described in a Department memo (discussed in this post) are part of AB819. Additional criminal penalties for concealment in AB533 continue to advance in the legislature. 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.
  • Technical changes in D15-09 and included in AB819 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 and is included in AB819.
  • Major changes to the process for getting unemployment decisions reviewed in circuit court, set forth in D15-11, are part of AB819. These changes were previously described here and here.
  • 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. This proposal is part of AB819.
  • 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, are part of AB819.

Labor and Management Proposals
At the Advisory Council’s 19 January 2016 meeting, the council took action on various management and labor proposals and the agreed-to changes have been incorporated in AB819.

The management proposals that the council agreed to include 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 employers in painting and sheetrock work $1,000 per incident (capped at $10,000 per calendar year) when coercing employees 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, is also right now being considered by the legislature.

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.

New Internet Claims Filing Process for 2016

The Department of Workforce Development is revamping its Internet Claims Filing process with a much more complicated and detailed series of questions and screens. At the December 17th Advisory Council meeting, the Department was scheduled to present to the council what these changes would entail. Because of other issues, however, the council never got to see this presentation. Luckily, the Department sent me a copy.

Those filing their weekly claim certifications will now be told about fraud warnings at the start and end of their claim filing. See pp.2 and 17. And, the 14 questions now being asked are at least 20+ questions. Furthermore, rather than simplifying the information being asked about, the new questions continue to be legalistic and leave key information out.

NOTE: For comparison, here are the questions Massachusetts asks claimants (in Massachusetts, the phone questions are the same as when filing by Internet).

NOTE: Also compare the information available in the Massachusetts Guide to Benefits for Claimants with Wisconsin’s Handbook for Claimants. Notice the kind of information available in Massachusetts and the tone of how that information is presented as compared to Wisconsin.

For example, in Wisconsin there will now be a question about school attendance. See p.3. Usually, when you attend school during your regular work shift you are ineligible for unemployment benefits. But, if you work during the evenings while attend classes during the day, you should still be eligible for unemployment benefits when laid off from your evening job. In this case, the schooling does not interfere with your availability on your typical work shift. The new Internet filing form, however, only asks about attending classes during the day and does not include or ask for any information about regular work shifts.

Able and available status are now two separate questions as well. See pp.4 and 5. Missing work because of illness usually leads to a reduction in weekly benefits because work was missed. The question on p.4, however, only asks about your regular employer. Because many claimants who have temporary, part-time work do not think of those employers as their “regular” employers, they will not think a question about missing work with a temporary employer because of sickness is included in this question. This question should be asking about any current or future employer and make no reference to a “regular” employer.

Problems with other questions continue. Claimants are supposed to report all wages earned in the week for which they are filing, regardless of when they are actually paid those wages. So, the Department goes into detail about how to report those wages and hours (and minutes) of work for employers (see pp.6-8) as well as how commission work and sales are to be reported (see p.9). But, then the Department asks about sick pay, bonus pay, holiday pay, and other kinds of pay (see pp.10-12) as already received for the week — “did you receive?” — or to be received — “will you receive?” As a result, these questions imply that regular wages that are to be paid in the future do not need to reported since there is no question about reporting wages that “will be received?” Instead of two questions for vacation pay et al., only one should be asked: “Are you to receive?” And, instead of all of these separate kinds of wage income that now has to be reported separately, the Department should simply ask claimants to report “Any and all kinds of income connected to the work with EMPLOYER you are to receive for the week at issue.” By breaking these kinds of income into separate categories, the Department is requiring claimants to have an accountant’s understanding of their income in order to correctly fill out their weekly claim certifications rather than just asking for the total, gross amount of all income regardless of kind.

NOTE: The Department will even have a screen for miscellaneous income, such as baby-sitting, that has to be reported. See p.13.

Specific work search information for each job action will also now have to be provided. See p.15.

Given all the information that has to be provided in the proper category now, opportunities for mistakes will abound. And, any mistake will be an opportunity for charging claimants with fraud. In short, this new Internet filing process will NOT make it easier for claimants to file their weekly claims. But, this new process will make it easier for the Department to charge claimants with concealment.

UI jurisdiction changes going forward

In September of this year, the Department of Workforce Development announced in D15-11 a new, comprehensive rewrite of circuit court review of unemployment decisions. Some of the problems with these changes were previously described in this blog.

At its October 12th meeting, the Advisory Council approved of the changes in D15-11 before the Labor and Industry Review Commission could even respond. Just prior to the council’s October 29th meeting, the Commission did provide a response to D15-11 and asked the council to reconsider its approval of D15-11 in light of those comments. The council asked the Commission to make a formal presentation about the issue that was no more than ten minutes in length at the Council’s November 19th meeting.

The Commission did so and asked the Advisory Council to hold off on D15-11 so that the Department and the Commission could discuss these changes and work out a compromise. The Commission pointed out that D15-11 had been developed without consultation with the Commission and, given the Commission’s role in circuit court review of Commission decisions, there should be some consultation with the Commission in these matters. In the meantime, the Department presented a response to the Commission’s comments. Without comment or explanation regarding the Commission’s plea for some consideration in making these changes, the council approved of LRB draft legislation that had already incorporated D15-11.

The Commission’s comments point to some obvious defects in the Department’s proposed changes. And, the Department’s response highlights a fundamental defect in the Department’s rationale and reasoning for these changes. The Department maintains that a party in an unemployment case who does not file an answer is subject to default and should be subject to default.

Under the proposed change, a court may enter an order declaring that a non-appearing party is in default for failing to timely or properly answer the complaint. In the absence of a defendant’s excusable neglect for failing to answer the complaint, that declaration of default should ordinarily be the result. The defaulting party should be precluded from seeking to litigate the case later. The proposal conforms to the longstanding law and practice in court actions in Wisconsin in cases of other types.

DWD Response to LIRC Comments at 1-2. Right now, the parties who have “won” a Commission decision receive the following cover letter from the Commission when a circuit court complaint seeking review of a Commission decision is filed:

On [date], the Labor and Industry Review Commission received copies of pleadings seeking judicial review of the commission’s decision noted above. You are named as a party in these judicial review proceedings. As required by Wis. Stat. § 102.23, we are sending you a copy of these pleadings. You have the right to participate in this proceeding if you choose.

The commission will file a timely responsive pleading and will defend its position before the court. We will send you a copy of the commission’s response when we file it with the court.

We will be happy to answer any questions you may have about the case.

In other words, parties who agree with the Commission decision essentially piggy-back on the Commission’s efforts in defending its decision. Because unemployment proceedings are not intended to entail much administrative costs, this procedural mechanism for defending the parties interest during court review of a Commission decision makes a great deal of sense. Understandably, when parties feel that they have a concern or interest in a case distinct from the Commission, they have the option of filing their own answer to a complaint.

The Department’s now council-approved changes in D15-11 up end this procedure and require any party in an unemployment to file its own answer to a complaint or risk a default judgment. For employers who are NOT sole proprietors, such answers MUST be drafted by an attorney since corporations can only appear in Wisconsin courts through legal representation. For employer-side counsel, this requirement will certainly lead to more billable hours. For employers who have to hire attorneys to file these answers . . . well, attorneys usually are not cheap.

The first of the DWD-sponsored proposals have appeared in legislation

At the 12 October 2015 Advisory Council meeting, the council gave final approval to the following proposals:

  • D15-10 — eliminating the publication of the claimant benefit tables within the statutes,
  • D15-11 — changes to circuit review review previously described here,
  • D15-12 — allowing the same protocols for unemployment taxes in regards to fiscal agents in adult care to apply to fiscal agents in child care situations, and
  • D15-13 — ending 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.

Previously, the council had approved the following Department proposals:

  • D15-02 — adding the ability 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 — applying the Treasury offset program to employers, as described previously in this post, and
  • D15-07 — changes to how work share benefits are calculated so as to comply with federal requirements for work share programs.

With the legislature currently in session, these three proposals — D15-03, D15-07, and D15-02 — have appeared in bills AB416 and SB341. The legislature will most likely enact these provisions shortly.

Several Department proposals, however, remain in limbo or are still being debated. The council has extensively discussed D15-04 in regards to setting 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. Proposal D15-05 was to correct a hole in the statutes that accidentally left LLPs out of the definition of employer (see also this DWD memo on this issue). Appeals modernization, D15-06, continues to be discussed by council members. 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. On the other hand, there has been no word on D15-09 — distinguishing able and available determinations from separation determinations — since this proposal was introduced at the 19 May 2015 council meeting. Finally, the proposed changes to the definition of concealment in D15-08 (described in this previous post) may be discussed again at subsequent council meetings.

Filing for unemployment? It’s a trap!

Thanks to an information request from one of the members of the Advisory Council, concealment data for the 2014 calendar year is now available. Of 21,694 initial determinations that led to appeal tribunal decisions in 2014, fully 11,040 were initial determinations that found claimant concealment. That is, nearly 51% of the initial determinations in 2014 concerned (and found) claimant concealment.

Of these 11,040 initial determinations, however, only 470, or 4.25% of the total, were appealed. Appeal tribunals overturned 216 or 46% of these 470 concealment appeals and affirmed 254 of these concealment cases. In 2014, the Labor and Industry Review Commission heard 196 concealment appeals and only affirmed 34 appeal tribunal decisions. The Commission overturned nearly 63% (123 cases) of the appeal tribunals that found concealment, and the Commission remanded 20% (23) of the 2014 concealment cases that reached it for additional evidence. That is, only 92 (34 affirmed by LIRC and 58 never appealed to LIRC) concealment decisions out of 470 appeals — i.e., 20% of the concealment appeals — were actually confirmed as concealment after review of some kind. So, while very few concealment cases are appealed, those that are appealed are usually overturned either by the appeal tribunal or the Commission.

And, given what has happened in the concealment cases the Commission has overturned — see, e.g., O’Neill v. Riteway Bus Service, Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 15600518MW and 15600519MW (28 May 2015) (“ALJ placed the burden of proving concealment on the wrong party. The ALJ stated that it was the employee’s burden to prove that there was no concealment. This is incorrect. As the commission and the department have stated for decades, the burden to establish that a claimant concealed information is on the department.“) (emphasis in original) and Dabo v. Personalized Plus Home Health, UI Hearing Nos. 14609522MW and 14609523MW (16 April 2015) (“The employee, as a non-native English speaker, missed the ‘did you work’ part of the multi-part question. It is a common mistake, one long acknowledged by the department.”) — it seems that many of the cases that are alleging concealment do not contain actual concealment.

Since less than five percent of concealment determinations are ever appealed, however, the Department has had a relatively unchecked hand in charging claimants with concealment. Unemployment claims, then, have essentially become a vehicle for alleging concealment against claimants. As they say in a galaxy far, far away:

It's a Trap!

Changes to unemployment venue now and in the future

In DWD v. LIRC, 2015 WI App 56 (“Froehlich,” after the claimant at issue in the case), the Department filed an unemployment appeal case in Milwaukee County even though none of the parties resided in that county.

Normally, unemployment cases in circuit court must be brought in the county where the claimant or the employer (i.e., the plaintiff in the case) resides. But, the Department also has the ability to appeal any LIRC decision even if the parties to that case do not. And, in Froehlich, the Department did just that. Under Wis. Stat. § 102.23(1)(a), when the Department of Workforce Development is the appealing party, venue is in “the county where the defendant resides.”

Typically, when a claimant or employer appeals a LIRC decision in the wrong county, the Commission immediately moves to dismiss the action for lack of venue. And courts routinely grant such motions, ending the unemployment appeals before the merits of the case are ever addressed.

But, in Froehlich the Department was the appealing party, and the Commission did not immediately move for dismissal. Instead, the Commission said it was willing to agree to venue in Milwaukee County subject to what other parties wanted and the circuit court’s permission. For some reason, the Department did nothing. When additional Department appeals were filed in numerous other cases throughout Wisconsin (and again in counties where no defendants resided), the Commission moved to dismiss Froehlich. The circuit court granted that request, and the Department appealed that dismissal to the appeals court.

NOTE: In the past, when the Department appealed a Commission decision because of a fundamental disagreement with the Commission over the meaning of unemployment law, the Department filed those appeals in Dane County, where the defendant Commission resided.

The court of appeals held that dismissal was NOT warranted in Froehlich because the Commission had accepted jurisdiction in Milwaukee County and the other defendants never objected to venue in Milwaukee County. Since the active parties to the case — the Department and the Commission — had indicated that Milwaukee County was a proper venue, dismissal for lack of venue was improper. But, the case was still remanded to the circuit court to determine whether it would agree to jurisdiction, and the appeals court strongly hinted to the circuit court that it should agree. See n.4 in Froehlich.

The end result in Froehlich is that a wrong venue no longer leads to automatic dismissal, at least when the Department is the plaintiff. Whether Froehlich might also lead to claimants and employers being able to keep their cases alive despite filing in the wrong venue remains an open question. But, a colorable claim is now viable that such cases should NOT be dismissed but remain either in the county where filed or transferred to another county where venue is proper before any dismissal for lack of venue takes effect.

For its sake, the Department is not sitting on its laurels. At the September 17th Advisory Council meeting, the Department presented a new proposal to create a new unemployment venue provision, D15-11. In place of Wis. Stat. § 102.23, a new Wis. Stat. § 108.09(7) is created and which includes a host of changes to how unemployment appeals will be handled in the future. These changes include:

  • Who is a party — Under new 108.09(7)(c)1, “every other party to the proceedings before the commission shall be made a defendant.” So, the parties of interest from workers’ compensation precedents no longer have to be included.
  • DWD is a required defendant — Under new 108.09(7)(c)1: “The department shall also be made a defendant if the department is not the plaintiff.” So, copies of complaints and summons have to made for the Department in every unemployment case. And, the Department explained to the Advisory Council that it will most likely file a routine answer in all of these appeals. Moreover, the Department may decide to take an active role in some cases. Certainly, if the Department does not receive its summons and complaint, expect a motion to dismiss from either the Commission or the Department for failing to serve a necessary party. See also new 108.10(4). At the very least, this new provision will make unemployment appeals that much more expensive, especially for large employers involved in numerous unemployment cases.
  • Commission excluded as a defendant for purposes of venue — Under new 108.09(7)(c)2: “if the plaintiff is the department, the proceedings shall be in the circuit court of the county where a defendant, other than the commission, resides.”
  • Proceedings in any court — Under new 108.09(7)(c)2: “The proceedings may be brought in any circuit court if all parties appearing in the case agree OR if the court, after notice and a hearing, orders.” So, the parties can agree to venue in a court whether or not that court agrees to venue. Or, a court might order the parties to file in another venue or accept venue itself if one of the parties disputes venue (and, as noted below, the court will have no reason for declining venue).
  • Lack of venue is NOT lack of competency — Under new 108.09(7)(c)2: “Commencing an action in a county in which no defendant resides does NOT deprive the court of competency to proceed to judgment on the merits of the case.” In other words, the Department can file its own unemployment appeals in any county it wants, regardless of whether the claimant or employer have any connection to that county whatsoever.
  • A 60-day time limit for submitting the record to circuit court is mandated. See new 108.09(7)(c)5.

Unemployment benefit payments continue to decline

The Advisory Council met yesterday, September 17th, and much information was put forward, including current financial reports for the state’s unemployment system.

As noted previously, unemployment taxes are slated to decline. Next year, 2016, will see a reduced tax schedule for employers, as the reserve fund had $735.4 million at the end of July 2015 and should meet the requirements for a reduced tax schedule next year.

The most stunning news, however, is that benefit payments continue to decline markedly. The Department’s Financial Outlook Report released in April 2015 reported that “UI benefit payments in 2014 were the lowest since 2000.” See Report at 21. Now in September 2015, the Department reports that: “Benefit payments charged to the reserve Fund were $371.2 million through July compared to $445.4 million last year.” See UI Reserve Fund Highlights at 1. This level of benefit payments is “$90 million below what is expected” and “has not been seen in Wisconsin since the 1990s,” the treasurer for the state’s unemployment funds told council members. In support of this observation, the financial report included this graph on the last page.

ER taxes relative to total benefits paid

This chart shows that all benefits paid to claimants are taking a deep dive since the recession. Part of the decline is the end in 2010 of federal extended unemployment compensation benefits. But, if the end of those federal benefits told the whole story, then the decline in benefits should level off and possibly increase as employers go through cycles of hiring and layoffs. But, there has been no leveling off in Wisconsin. Rather, benefit payments continue falling off of a cliff. Keep in mind as well that these dollars are not adjusted for inflation or cost of living increases. So, this drop in benefit payments is even more devastating to claimants trying to pay rent and buy groceries than pictured here.

For why this decline in payments is occurring, the main reasons appear to be the Department’s efforts at charging concealment against claimants for their mistakes and the new substantial fault disqualification standard. See Why employer UI taxes are down: concealment and substantial fault. The Department is essentially making it harder for those losing their jobs to qualify for unemployment benefits. And, those that do qualify are increasingly facing concealment charges six to nine months after their claims have ended, forcing them to repay all benefits previously received, pay additional penalties for their mistakes mislabeled as concealment, and then forfeit years of future unemployment benefits as an additional penalty. In short, unemployment benefits do not really exist anymore for those who lose their jobs, and this outcome is by design.