Wisconsin Legislature votes to end extra unemployment

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature voted Wednesday, June 9 to eliminate a $300-a-week federal bonus for unemployed people, a measure that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has made clear he's likely to veto.

The federal payment, approved to help the unemployed during the coronavirus pandemic, is scheduled to end on Sept. 6. Twenty-five other states have already approved ending it early, saying it has exacerbated worker shortage problems.

That's the argument that Republicans, state and local chambers of commerce, trade groups and others made for passing the bill in Wisconsin, saying some people getting the equivalent of $16.75 an hour on unemployment are choosing to stay home. Evers last week voiced support for the $300 payment, saying those who advocate abolishing it don’t have any evidence that it’s behind the worker shortages.

The payment comes on top of Wisconsin's weekly $370 unemployment benefit.

The bill up for approval in the Senate and the Assembly would end Wisconsin's involvement in four federal unemployment enhancement programs: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos insisted Wednesday that the $300 payment is keeping people at home.

"Do you believe we should help the small business community?" Vos said. "Work should be what pays, not waiting for a government paycheck."

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz countered that unemployment is lower now than a year ago as the pandemic was raging. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate this past April was 3.9%. In April 2020 it was 14.1%

The problem is Republican policies have driven workers out of the state over the last decade, Hintz said.

"You’ve made our state worse. People don’t want to live here," he said. "This vote doesn’t address your problems."

The bill passed both the Senate and Assembly on party-line votes, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against.

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Now hiring in Wisconsin

Labor experts say the worker shortage is not just about the $300 payment. Some unemployed people have been reluctant to return to work because they fear catching the virus. Others have found new occupations. And many women, especially working mothers, have left the workforce to care for their children.

Wisconsin lists 107,000 open jobs, from manufacturing to restaurants.

"Lots of essential businesses are scrambling to find employees," said Alan Petelinsek, owner of Power Test, Inc.

"We don’t even have enough staff to keep up with the orders," said Natasha Jules, Jewels Caribbean Bar & Restaurant.

"We’re going to have businesses that are not going to be there five, 10 years, even two or three years from now because they can’t staff the businesses," said Gino Fazzari, Calderone Club/San Giorgio Pizzeria Napoletana.

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and other groups blame, in part, that $300 dollars a week in federal unemployment benefits as the Wisconsin Legislature voted to get rid of it.

Again, Democrats back the unemployment money and point out that Wisconsin employers experienced worker shortages before the pandemic.

Some on unemployment say the money is helping.

"If you’re raising a three- or four-member family and you’re only bringing in $400 to $500 a week, that’s $2,000 a month," said Chenon Hussey, Wisconsin Unemployment ACTION Group. "You take away rent, you take away utilities, food, all of those things that are just basic needs, unemployment is not better."

Again, Governor Evers is expected to veto this Republican bill to get rid of the federal unemployment money.