Wisconsin’s System Increasingly Rigged Against the Unemployed

With the latest Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia index ranking Wisconsin 49th out of 50 in economic outlook, high unemployment in Wisconsin is a problem that is not likely to go away any time soon. But, instead of trying to fix the economy in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker's Department of Workforce Development (DWD) is finding new ways to disqualify the unemployed from collecting benefits. This is unlikely to do anything but compound Wisconsin's economic woes.

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has reported on extreme, sweeping changes in the State's unemployment law. These changes would benefit employers at the expense of the unemployed by making it significantly harder to obtain benefits. Since unemployment benefit claims do significantly affect an employer's tax rate, Wisconsin employers have an interest in finding more ways to disqualify more people. But even before this legislation was introduced, the DWD has gradually helped stack the deck against the unemployed.

Department to the Unemployed: "Give Us Our Money Back!"

For instance, the Department of Workforce Development has been reopening or reinvestigating old cases and reversing initial determinations that originally allowed benefits. For example, a teacher, whom we'll call Amy, was terminated in 2009 but continued to work an unrelated, part-time job while she concentrated on finding another teaching job. She consistently reported factually all the information the DWD required and collected her unemployment benefits. When she called the department to ask an unrelated question, the DWD reexamined her case and told her to pay back almost $30,000, a staggering amount for someone who has been underemployed for four years.

This is one of many examples encountered by the unemployment clinic of the DWD changing eligibility for an individual then asking for benefits back. In most cases, these are individuals who are already struggling, who have been forced to take lower-paying jobs, or are still unemployed or underemployed. And in almost all cases, this money has already been spent on basic needs while that person has struggled to find employment in a difficult job market.

Victor Forberger, a labor and employment law attorney in the Madison area and an expert in the field of Unemployment Insurance law, explained, "This is different than in the past. They [the DWD] are consciously trying to look at old cases and trying to find ways to disqualify people." However, he continued, "those repayment orders are being overturned [on appeal] because there's nothing really there."

Forberger is concerned by the department's actions: "The problem that I fear is that a lot of people are just accepting ... these decisions [by not fighting them] and thinking, 'Well, you know, there's no way to collect, I have no money,' and not realizing that they're putting themselves on the hook to DWD for years on end."

Between Initial Investigations and Appeals Process, System is Rigged Against Employees

Many factors have led to the department mistakenly denying benefits when claimants first apply. Due to the increase in unemployment over the last four years, the department has been understaffed, overworked, and has supplemented its workforce with temporary workers. These investigators are not always trained properly, and in some cases, are trained to simply review cases and identify fraud. This creates the presumption that the claimants are committing some kind of fraud.

To make matters more difficult, after receiving a denial of benefits, an individual's only legal recourse is to file a timely appeal, but there are problems with the neutrality of this process as well. Attorney Forberger expressed concern that the Administrative Law Judges who hear these appeals are criticized for taking too much time to explain the law. He says they're being informed of the percentage of cases where they rule on behalf of claimants "as if it's a problem."

Wisconsin, the First State to Implement an Unemployment Insurance Program, May Be the First to Virtually Eliminate it

Now Wisconsin, the first state to implement Unemployment Insurance (in 1932), may be the first to virtually eliminate it, due to the extreme nature of the new laws introduced to the legislature. Attorney Forberger explained the collective effects all these changes could have: "I definitely see a worst case scenario in which unemployment [insurance benefit payment] becomes a very rare ... thing."

One of the disqualifications for unemployment insurance is when someone is terminated for misconduct connected with their employment. Right now, this is a relatively high standard (meaning you have to do something really bad to be disqualified for unemployment benefits) that has been in place since 1941, but the proposed law significantly lowers that standard from a "willful and wanton disregard for the employer's interests" to a "substantial fault" standard. As Bob Anderson, attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin, explained in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "You could have an employee who is 25% at fault and the employer is 75% at fault ... and you will lose your benefits."

With all the new ways to disqualify those claiming unemployment insurance, on top of the increasingly rigged system, actually receiving an unemployment benefit check might soon become a privilege for a lucky few instead of the social safety net it was intended to be.

*Note: Laura Steigerwald is a law student at UW-Madison and is the student administrator for the Unemployment Appeals Clinic where Attorney Victor Forberger is the managing attorney. She is also a legal intern at CMD. The Unemployment Appeals Clinic is a non-profit organization that pairs law students with attorneys to help individuals with unemployment insurance matters. The views expressed here should not be considered as an official statement on behalf of the Unemployment Appeals Clinic, Inc.


Incredible! I've worked for 43 years and filed my first unemployment claim after 35 years of employment. I paid taxes into a fund that allowed me to utilize those funds as a safety net. Systematically, WI would deny it's citizens use of "emergency" funds to care for themselves and their families. Conservative ideology will undue this country unless we vote these B*&%!*'s out of office. The governor of WI is not fiscally responsible, HE IS NOTHING LESS THAN A CORPORATE-SANCTIONED CRIMINAL. And he is not the only one! Please, pay attention, read, find out if your State representatives are ALEC members and RID your government assembly houses of these two-faced mobsters. ALEC members (legislative and corporate) are dangerous and are stealing our future.

I stopped reading your post after I saw you write in that you paid in taxes to a fund that allowed you to dip into it as a safety net. Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance is funded by tax paying employers.

Wrong. Unemployment is funded by employees wages. These are obligations to the employee that must be paid to the government on the employees behalf. This is a more functional way of collecting, reporting, and dispersing these monies. Nothing more.

Wrong. Unemployment is funded by employees wages. These are obligations to the employee that must be paid to the government on the employees behalf. This is a more functional way of collecting, reporting, and dispersing these monies. Nothing more.

Bravo to the above poster. You have nailed it! And we must take our State Back! Thank you for seeing things as they really are. At 58, single and self-supporting all my life I too am experiencing in the last couple of years financial distress due to employment issues beyond my control. I have had to access unemployment the last several years, I am underemployed and working multiple part-time jobs. Monday I learned I would not be collecting the benefits I expected to receive this summer despite my understanding and paperwork indicating I would be..........and just like the article states, under trained over zealous adjudicators providing untimely and erroneous responses that I now have to live with that put me in a more extreme situation unexpectedly. This is sickening and it has to stop. What the hell is going on in this once great State of ours?

If some people would quit abusing the unemployment benefits and actually go out and find a job, perhaps the rules would not continue to be tightened up so those with ligitimate claims could be processed. I applaud Scott Walker on the changes he has made in Wisconsin, taking a stand against those fraudulently abusing the system or intentially scam others out of the system. Someone in my family has just been scammed with Identity theft through the Wisconsin DWD. They received a letter from the DWD that their claim was processed and will begin receiving benefits. They had not filed anything as they are currently employed. Someone else filed, claiming to be them, so they could receive payment - this is stealing! Apparently the process is not tight enough yet if people can steal others identity's and apply and be approved for benefits.

your whole argument that walker is helping stop the fraud falls apart cause someone in your family just got scammed and now even though ive been filing for years i have to wait for my identity all these rules just slow things down if you think walker isnt a pawn for rich people i doubt you can understand why we dont need more than a handfull of laws not this encyclopedia of redtape its all to slow us down if u dont believe thar your probably stuck in park time to put ut in drive grow ur own food medicine and energy if u dont buy it they wont supply it peace

Yes, there are people who defraud the system, but that is found in everything. Should you be restricted from receiving a credit card just because others commit credit card fraud? I would say your answer would be "no". Well, it's the same thing with unemployment. Wisconsin is an at will state, so employers can terminate someone for basically any reason. A truly dedicated employee can work his fingers to the bone, just to get fired for something minor. However, in the eyes of the employer, it was a major issue. Therefore, could result in that person not being eligible to receive much deserved unemployment benefits. I feel this is wrong, and is actually going to hurt the citizens of Wisconsin because the unemployed need to eat too, and without the needed benefits, the economy suffers, along with many individuals and families. Just remember too, that the person who is unemployed was employed before, and paid taxes and help fund unemployment benefits, so why don't they deserve to utilize it when it is necessary?

I work and live in a place that is heavily focused on tourism. Which means almost every business here is closed during winter. Seasonal workers basically have to find a winter job if they want to be able to live and the problem is the closest town that would have any jobs worth working is an hour away. At this point I'm better off to leave my family and let them struggle with the business and find a full time job that's all year round. I feel bad for construction workers that aren't in a union. Once the snow falls, they will have to use their savings just to survive. Unless they're expected to work for minimum wage in winter, every winter, for the rest of their life.

I voted for Walker. My husband works seasonal construction, and the start and end dates are up in the air year after year--this makes finding an off-season job that will hire him nearly impossible. He only claims benefits as long as he needs to, but this year they've tied up his claim and say they don't know when it will be resolved. This completely screws seasonal construction companies that have a difficult enough time finding good employees. Because of this, people not only don't want to take seasonal construction jobs in the first place, but if they do, they're unlikely to stay from one year to the next. The company does snow removal to supplement in the winter, but obviously without daily snowfall there's no way to guarantee work. When seasonal construction companies go out of business due to lack of a workforce, a good percentage of jobs will be lost. Where will those jobs be made up??