Wisconsin Assembly Republicans proposed a new state loan program on Wednesday to support some of the roughly 140,000 people in the state waiting to receive delayed unemployment checks.
Under the GOP plan, the Evers administration would use $40 million in funding from the federal COVID-19 relief package passed in March, of which the state has about $280 million remaining, to offer zero-interest bridge loans to people awaiting benefit checks. The program could be administered by the state Department of Revenue, Republicans said.
According to a memo from the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office, $40 million could provide about 31,000 people a $1,308 loan, which equals four weeks of the average state unemployment benefit. The average weekly benefit was $327 in March 2020, the memo said.
That would cover less than a quarter, about 22 percent, of the people who are waiting on delayed benefit checks.
The Republicans called on the governor’s administration to roll out the program immediately, saying legislation is not required to establish it.
The state Department of Workforce Development has been struggling with a backlog of employment claims since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin, when the state’s unemployment rate jumped from 3 percent in March to 14 percent in April.
According to numbers released by the department earlier this week, about 530,000 unemployment claims filed between March 14 and July 4 have yet to be paid out. That represents roughly 13 percent of claims from that time period and includes claims from about 140,000 individuals.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said lawmakers are being inundated with calls from people who have been waiting for several weeks, sometimes months, for their unemployment checks.
"The real question is, how long are these 140,000 people supposed to wait? How long can people go without any income, without being able to pay their bills?" Steineke said at a Capitol press conference Wednesday. "And how long are we going to tolerate the excuses from the administration without any real action on solving the problem?"
DWD announced earlier this week it has more than tripled its staff between mid-March and early July in an attempt to address the backlog. It has also extended the hours of its call center.
The department had previously pointed to staffing shortages, as well as an antiquated computer system, as reasons for the backlog. Republicans have been critical of those explanations, saying the administration should have moved more quickly to increase staff.
Delays in paying out claims can be caused by a number of things, including disputes over how someone came to be out of work. For example, if an employee is fired for misconduct, they are ineligible for unemployment benefits. There can also be disputes about length of employment, number of hours worked or wages. According to the department, about 12 percent of claims between March 15 and July 6 have been denied for one reason or another.
Disputes over eligibility lead to investigations which, according to the department, are usually handled in 21 days. However, some Wisconsin residents have been waiting months without receiving a single unemployment payment.
Rep. Jon Plumer, R-Lodi, said he has had "hundreds" of phone conversations with constituents who are "desperate" because of delayed unemployment checks.
"These are real stories. These are people losing their homes, people that can’t put food on the table, that can’t pay their bills," he said.
Gov. Tony Evers’ office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.