Wisconsin disabled workers file unemployment discrimination lawsuit

A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday, Sept. 7 alleges that Wisconsin’s unemployment system discriminates against people with disabilities.

Currently, Wisconsin automatically rejects unemployment claims from people who received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) in that month.

"I see no reason why folks on SSDI who can go out and work who want to be productive and part of their community, part of their society, why they can’t be paid unemployment," Scott Collett, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs, said. "So what I would like to see is just them treated like every other person – fairly."

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Collett said he receives SSDI payments as a result of his liver disease. He said he "checked all the boxes" when filing for unemployment until he got to the part of the questionnaire that asked if he received SSDI.

"So immediately when I answered ‘yes,’ that triggered something and they no longer paid me," Collett said.

Scott Collett

Collett qualified for federal unemployment assistance but had to fight for it. Eventually, he won his appeal, but he still hasn’t received his unemployment payments. 

"It was this far from suicidal," Collett said, holding his fingers close together. "I cannot begin to tell you how devastating it was."

As federal unemployment assistance ends, Collett said he’s concerned about the more than 150,000 Wisconsin workers who receive SSDI payments and are automatically disqualified from state benefits. 

"We’re struggling to start with because of our disabilities, and it just seems like another strike against us," Collett said.

In a lawsuit, Collett joins other plaintiffs to claim Wisconsin’s current practice violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"It’s disability discrimination," Paul Kinne, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said.

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"It’s actually discouraging disabled people from working," Victor Forberger, another attorney representing the plaintiffs, said.

SSDI is a federal program that employees and employers pay into through taxes. If a disability prevents someone from holding "substantial gainful" employment, they can apply to receive SSDI payments.

The program encourages people to work as much as they are able. The standard for "substantial gainful" employment varies from year to year. In 2020, non-blind people with disabilities were eligible for SSDI if they made less than $1,260 per month.

In 2013, Wisconsin passed a law saying people receiving Social Security disability cannot simultaneously receive state unemployment benefits. Lawmakers said at the time the goal was to prevent fraud and "double dippers."

But when COVID-19 hit Wisconsin, people who followed the SSDI program's encouragement to work part-time to supplement their incomes found themselves without jobs and without an unemployment safety net.

The class-action lawsuit asks for a permanent halt to Wisconsin’s SSDI unemployment benefits ban; it also asks for an injunction to temporarily stop the ban while the issue works its way through the courts, an allowance for SSDI recipients to go back and file unemployment claims from the last six years, and a repayment of unemployment benefits to SSDI recipients who initially received unemployment but were forced to pay it back because of their disability payments.

Forberger said the money would come from the state’s unemployment fund, which comes from employer taxes; the more layoffs an employer has, the higher its tax rate.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which oversees unemployment, said it is aware of the complaint. Gov. Tony Evers’ office has proposed changes to the SSDI ban through legislation, but state lawmakers have not moved them forward. 

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