LIRC’s elimination

Governor Walker’s proposed FY2018-FY2019 budget includes the startling elimination of the Labor and Industry Review Commission.

Previously in 2015, DWD raided the Commission’s budget and had its general counsel demoted and replaced.

This attack was apparently not enough. All sources available to me indicate that DWD’s unemployment division pushed for the Commission’s elimination, and Governor Walker acceded to DWD’s demands (more on this issue below).

The agency description document reveals basic numbers about this elimination: the Commission is only funded for six months into the next budget year, and so the Commission will cease to exist on midnight, 31 December 2017. More than 26 staffers will be let go, including three Commissioners (only two currently appointed, as Commissioner Jordahl saw the writing on the wall and jumped to the Public Service Commission). As almost all the Commission’s funding is from federal sources or specific fees, only $265,500 in actual state tax revenue is being saved by the Commission’s elimination.

The budget bill, AB64, has the details about what is happening. For unemployment, see pp.663-74 of the bill.

In general, the budget bill makes a division head (who is a political appointee serving at the pleasure of the governor) as the appellate review authority in place of the Commission.

In this proposed budget bill, these division heads will take over for the Commission effective on July 1st of this year. In other words, on July 1st or afterwards any appeals filed with the Commission will no longer be valid. As a result, these division heads will need to provide notice about appeal rights to parties in workers’ compensation, equal rights/discrimination, and unemployment cases perhaps as early as June 1st. And, they will need to do so regardless of when the budget bill is actually passed.

Neither the workers’ compensation or equal rights divisions have staff attorneys on hand to handle these appeals. In 2015 (the latest year case load data is available), there were 214 workers’ compensation cases filed with the Commission, 230 decisions issued, and 32 cases appealed to court that the Commission had to defend. As there were 422 workers’ compensation decisions by administrative law judges that year, over 50% of those decisions were appealed to the Commission in 2015.

For equal rights cases that same year, there were 77 appeals filed with the Commission, and it issued 94 decisions, of which 19 were appealed to court and hence defended by the Commission. The 239 decisions by administrative law judges include many kinds of cases for which there is no appeal to the Commission (such as fair employment or medical leave cases), only appeal to circuit court. So, the percentage of discrimination cases appealed to the Commission is probably much higher than the 32% suggested by this raw data and is probably close to 50% of the cases for which appeal rights to the Commission exist.

In 2015, there were 59 appeals of employer tax cases to the Commission. The Commission issued 49 decisions that year, and three of those were appealed into circuit court. Administrative law judges issued 397 employer tax decisions that year.

The unemployment numbers are eye-popping for claimants. Unemployment appeals involving claimants numbered 1,735 in 2015 (~144 a month), and the Commission issued 1,773 decisions (~147 a month). Forty-eight of these cases were appealed to circuit court. Administrative law judges issued 18,172 claimant benefit decisions that year.

None of these division heads is loosing any of their current job duties, and there appears to be no provisions for hiring additional staff to handle their new appellate review duties. So, appellate review by division heads will have to occur when they find the time. As obvious from these numbers, that review will be perfunctory at best. For workers’ compensation and discrimination cases, the budget bill is simply shifting the responsibility for review into circuit and appellate courts. These division administrators are likely to rubber stamp all appeals that arrive on their desks (at least initially). Of course, costs to employers and employees associated with this move to court review will be increased, because they will need to pay for attorneys and filing fees after going through the motions for the perfunctory division review. As a result, the number of cases being appealed will likely decline because employers and employees simply cannot afford the additional costs that court review entails. In other words, injustices and basic mistakes at the hearing stage will likely go uncorrected and lawyers will have fewer paying clients.

The unemployment review process represents a slightly different picture from the other agencies. DWD’s unemployment division already has six to eight staff attorneys available to it. Indeed, it is these attorneys who prosecute employer tax cases, who conduct training of administrative law judges, and who occasionally prosecute claimants in unemployment concealment cases. These staff attorneys will most likely take on the task of reviewing the 1,700+ division appeals that land on Joe Handrick’s desk. So, employers will face an attorney prosecuting the tax cases against them and then having that same attorney or a co-worker of that attorney reviewing the merits of any appeal. Indeed, the same DWD attorney who lost a decision before an administrative law judge could appeal that lost decision and then conduct or advise on the division review.

NOTE: under this budget bill, DWD also retains the ability to appeal any decision of the division administrator to circuit court. DWD, in essence, can appeal itself. Huh?

Recall that the Commission was created as an independent agency in the late 1970s. Previously, the Commission managed the entire Department of Industry, Labor, and Human Services (DWD’s previous incarnation) and also handled appellate review of discrimination, workers’ compensation, and unemployment cases. At the time, there were concerns raised about staff attorneys and administrative law judges who were involved in cases having a hand in the appellate review of those cases by the Commission, even though at that time there was a separate division dedicated to appellate review. To address those concerns, in part, the Commission and the staff section dedicated to appellate review were separated and made into a distinct agency. In this way, the Commission would be insulated from political concerns and improper communications among attorneys who were connected to the parties in a case.

As obvious, the proposed budget bill reverses this change and does so without any of the protections needed for keeping Department attorneys who handle a case before an administrative law judge or who advise that judge about how to handle cases on a certain topic from also having a voice in the appellate review of that case. Furthermore, without additional staff, this proposal essentially makes the Department’s concerns about how a case should be resolved of primary importance. After all, cases have to be decided in a timely manner, and the increased case loads from this change will focus attorney’s attention pretty much on the Department’s own substantive goals rather than on the concerns of the parties for a fair and impartial hearing free of any thumbs on the scales.

And, this thumb on the scales leads to why the Commission is being eliminated in the first place. My sources indicate that the unemployment division of DWD is furious with the Commission because it has not accepted the Department’s push to charge claimants’ simple mistakes with concealment. The Commission continues to follow the statutory requirements that for the Department to demonstrate claimant concealment the Department must present evidence that the claimant made a mistake on his or her weekly claim certification and that the claimant understood or knew by making that mistake she or he would get extra unemployment benefits beyond what he or she should have received.

NOTE: the purported rationale for the Commission’s elimination is to get the average age of the Commission’s pending unemployment decisions at or below 40 days. That is, the Commission on average should issue an unemployment decision within 40 days of the appeal. Through September of 2016, the average age of the Commission’s unemployment cases was 37 days. So, the Commission is ALREADY meeting this requirement. See p.2 of the agency description document.

Here is a run-down of some of the concealment issues the Department wants over-turned:

  • The Commission refuses to accept financial need as a reason for finding a claimant intended to steal unemployment benefits (unemployment benefits are by their very nature intended to address a financial need). Wallenkamp v. Arby’s Restaurants, UI Hearing No. 13607281MW and 13607282MW (15 May 2014), aff’d DWD v. LIRC, 367 Wis.2d 749, 877 N.W.2d 650 (2 February 2016); Gussert v. Springhetti Landscaping and DWD, UI Hearing Nos. 16400598AP-16400609AP (27 January 2017).
  • The Commission refuses to find concealment for non-reported wages when claimants subsequently report those wages a few weeks later. Bilton v. H & R Block Eastern Enterprises, Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 13605766MW and 13605682MW (9 Jan. 2014); Perlongo v. Joey’s Seafood & Grill, UI Hearing Nos. 13610060MW & 13610061MW (22 July 2014).
  • The Commission continues to find that an October 2012 transformation of a weekly claim certification question into a compound question was confusing and did not warrant a finding of concealment for mistaken claims based on that confusion (beginning in week 43 of 2012, the week ending 27 October 2012, Question No. 4 was modified from “Did you work?” to “During the week, did you work or did you receive or will you receive sick pay, bonus pay or commission?”). Harris v. Arandell Corp., UI Hearing Nos. 13606535MW and 13606536MW (9 Jan. 2014); Henning v. Visiting Angels, UI Hearing Nos. 13606277MW and 13606278MW (9 Jan. 2014); Chao v. Eagle Movers Inc., UI Hearing No. 13607069M and 13607071MW (17 Jan. 2014); Maurer v. Manpower US Inc., UI Hearing No. 13607416MW and 13607417MW (28 Jan. 2014); Wallenkamp v. Arby’s Restaurants, UI Hearing No. 13607281MW and 13607282MW (15 May 2014), aff’d DWD v. LIRC, 367 Wis.2d 749, 877 N.W.2d 650 (2 February 2016); Audwin Short, UI Hearing No. 14600693MW (10 July 2014); Smith v. Journal Sentinel, Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 13610174MW (31 July 2014); Jackson v. Securitas Security Services, Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 14606875MW and 14606876MW (9 June 2015).
  • The Commission continues to raise questions about the conduct of administrative law judges who take it upon themselves to chastise claimants for their presumed concealment rather than hearing the evidence as presented and presuming claimant eligibility as the law requires. Henning v. Visiting Angels, UI Hearing Nos. 13606277MW and 13606278MW (9 Jan. 2014); Fera v. South East Cable LLC, UI Hearing Nos. 13607375MW (31 July 2014); Vasquez v. Fedex Smartpost Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 14602073MW and 14602074MW (24 September 2014).
  • The Commission continues to find that claimants who are confused about what needs to be reported are just making mistakes and not committing concealment. Hollett v. Douglas Shafler, UI Hearing Nos. 13003690MW and 130003691MW (8 May 2014); Dabo v. Personalized Plus Home Health, UI Hearing No. 14609522MW and 14609523MW (16 April 2015); O’Neill v. Riteway Bus Service Inc., UI Hearing No. 15600518MW and 15600519MW (28 May 2015); Gussert v. Springhetti Landscaping and DWD, UI Hearing Nos. 16400598AP-16400609AP (27 January 2017).
  • The Commission continues to find that claimants who are confused about their status as employees or independent contractors are not committing concealment. Haebig v. News Publishing Co. Inc. of Mt. Horeb, UI Hearing Nos. 13000910MD, 13000911MD, and 13000912MD (31 January 2014); David Mumm, UI Hearing No. 13003988MD (28 Feb. 2014); Martin R. Lash, UI Hearing No. 13403269AP (30 May 2014).
  • The Commission refuses to give the Department three chances to prove concealment against claimants. Terry v. Jane Schapiro, UI Hearing Nos. 14601971MW and 14601972MW (12 Sept. 2014).
  • The Commission refuses to find concealment for claimants who fail to report wages they do not know about when they file the weekly certifications. Bilton v. H&R Block Eastern Enterprises Inc., UI Hearing Nos. 13605766MW and 13605682MW (9 January 2014).
  • The Commission refuses to find concealment for claimants who mistakenly report their earnings when received rather than when earned. Waoh-Tobin v. Banana Republic, UI Hearing No. 16602900MW (18 October 2016).
  • The Commission even refuses to allow a finding of concealment when there is no information in the record about whether the employee worked any specific weeks, received any wages in those weeks, filed possible claims for those weeks, and then possibly provided information on those non-existent claims that were somehow mistaken from the unknown work and wages allegedly done. Fera v. South East Cable LLC, UI Hearing Nos. 13607375MW (31 July 2014).

The Department disagrees with the Commission on all of these concealment issues. So, the Department has decided to have the Commission eliminated and anoint itself as the Commission’s replacement. Anyone interested in the impartial rule of law should be aghast at this development. Review will by design be done by political appointees whose job is to accomplish the political objectives of the governor who appointed them.

If this change goes forward, no one — not employer nor employee — should expect a fair hearing in any DWD case.

The problems in unemployment matters will appear almost immediately. First and foremost, the Commission is being eliminated because it disagrees with the Department about concealment issues. So, the message is clear and direct that disagreement with the Department puts a person’s job in jeopardy. When the Department can eliminate an independent agency, administrative law judges certainly will understand that they must do what the Department wants or face similar elimination.

In workers’ compensation and equal rights cases, the political influence arising from division review will take a few months or perhaps even a year to make itself felt. But, it will be obvious to all at some point that the administrative law judges in these areas of law are following a requirement that exists outside of the hearing itself. Just as private arbitration has been rightly criticized as favoring repeat players over one-time complainants, so too will administrative law judges find themselves knowing how their bosses want cases decided and acting on that knowledge in order to keep their employment. After all, the division administrator will get to declare in every appeal what his or her opinion on the issues are. And, certainly any case that has political repercussions will be decided by those politics rather than the merits. These division administrators are political appointees, after all, who serve at the pleasure of the governor. As a result, the governor is free to inquire of them about how an appeal will be decided and inform that division administrator of the outcome the governor desires.

[UPDATE 7 March 2017: added citations to Gussert case regarding discussion of concealment cases the Department wants overturned.]

LIRC funding fix

Recall that in the latest Wisconsin budget, not only was LIRC’s budget cut and its general counsel made a political appointee of the Governor, but the Labor and Industry Review Commission was also transferred from DWD to the Department of Administration for budgetary purposes.

The problem with this change is that administration of unemployment law is funded through a federal tax that employers pay. The funds are then channeled from the feds to the state agency responsible for unemployment law in the state, namely DWD in the case of Wisconsin. Since LIRC is now no longer part of DWD for budgetary purposes, LIRC faces the prospect of losing all of its federal unemployment funding (as well as some equal rights funding that also comes from the feds).

So, AB685 and SB560 create a mechanism for transferring federal funds from DWD to LIRC for its federally funded work.

As the LRB explains:

Under prior law, the Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC) was attached to the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) and moneys were appropriated to DWD for the activities of LIRC. 2015 Wisconsin Act 55 (the 2015-17 biennial budget act) attached LIRC to the Department of Administration and appropriated moneys directly to LIRC.

This bill provides for the transfer of federal moneys received by DWD to LIRC for unemployment administration and equal rights functions performed by LIRC and of other moneys transferred to LIRC for other purposes.

The mechanism for accomplishing this transfer of unemployment funds?

to transfer to the appropriation account under s. 20.427 (1) (k) an amount determined by the treasurer of the unemployment reserve fund. [emphasis supplied]

In other words, the treasurer of the unemployment reserve will now have the statutory authority to determine independently what LIRC’s funding from federal monies will be.