Two of the Legislature's top Republicans say they'll pass a bill that would cut off federal unemployment insurance benefits that were added during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying they're no longer needed and they're making it harder for businesses to find workers.
The move, which could be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, would reduce unemployment benefits by $300 per week about four months before the payments are scheduled to expire on their own.
Congress passed supplemented unemployment benefits three times since the pandemic began. Initially the added benefit was $600 per week, but it dropped to $300 per week in the second and third federal coronavirus relief bills.
In recent days, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce along with state-based business groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce have pushed to repeal the benefit.
Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, who co-chairs the Legislature's powerful budget committee, said other states have listened and it's time for Wisconsin to follow their lead.
"When you pay people more to stay home, they stay home," Marklein said. "Employers are desperate for employees right now."
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the added unemployment benefits "were necessary for many" last year.
"They're no longer necessary for most," Vos said.
Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback did not say whether Evers would veto the plan but issued a statement urging Republicans to pass key provisions of the governor's budget.
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"If Republicans are interested in putting this pandemic behind us, they’ll stop playing politics with our economic recovery and pass the governor’s Badger Bounceback agenda so we can invest in making health care more affordable, supporting our kids and our public schools, and building infrastructure and creating jobs across our state," Cudaback said.
Other Democrats were sharply critical of the move.
"Wisconsin Republicans want you to take whatever job there is, regardless of pay/benefits/working conditions," said Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee in a tweet. "Trying to end $300 Pandemic UI 4 months early is about one thing — keeping wages low by forcing people to work for less than what they're worth."
The Main Street Alliance, a progressive small business advocacy group, said in a statement that it disagreed that unemployment benefits were driving staffing shortages for some employers.
"Lack of access to reliable, affordable child care, the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on demand at restaurants and the fact that many folks in those industries had to shift to other work during the pandemic due to the impact on the restaurant industry are more important factors," said the Main Street Alliance state manager Shawn Phetteplace.
Phetteplace said the best way to resolve those issues was to make it easier for small businesses to provide benefits people need by passing President Joe Biden's "American Families" plan.
The legislation announced Tuesday by Vos and Marklein would end four types of federal unemployment aid passed during the pandemic: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), and Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation (MEUC).
Other top Wisconsin Republicans have echoed the same message, including U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and the rest of the state's Republican congressional delegation. Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, a likely candidate for governor in 2022, also endorsed the move.
Wisconsin's unemployment rate fell to 3.8 percent in January, which was among the lowest in the nation and nearing pre-pandemic levels.