By Senator, Lena C. Taylor
Fresh off the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history, we could be facing this nightmare again next week. This time, Wisconsin should be better prepared for the impact on the state’s federal workforce located here in the Badger state.
The standoff between the Trump administration and opponents of his $5.7 billion-dollar request for a border wall lasted for five long weeks. Costing the United States economy roughly $11 billion, the Congressional Budget Office concedes that nearly $3 billion of that money is permanently lost. Adding injury to insult, a recent article in the Washington Post said that in the more than two weeks since the shutdown ended, there are thousands of federal workers that have yet to receive their backpay for missed work and wages.
An estimated 3,000 Wisconsin residents employed by the federal government were either furloughed or considered “essential” employees during the shutdown. In Wisconsin, furloughed workers, those who were not required to report to work and not receiving paid wages, were eligible to collect unemployment benefits during the shutdown. When the furloughed employees receive back pay, they must repay the unemployment insurance benefits they received during that period.
However, Wisconsin law DOES NOT allow federal workers deemed “Essential”, those who were required to report to work and were not receiving paid wages, to also be eligible for unemployment. In fact, state statues dictate that an employee who works 32 hours or more per week is considered working “full time” and may not receive unemployment insurance benefits, even if they were not being paid for that work.
According to the Labor Department, roughly 420,000 federal employees were deemed “essential” and worked through the shutdown without pay. These workers were “generally not eligible” to receive benefits. Federal employees are covered by a separate unemployment insurance system parallel to that for other workers. But the two systems are nearly identical and are administered similarly by the states.
Each state determines eligibility for unemployment differently for these federal employees.
The Post article also indicated that even when federal workers have been paid, often the furloughed workers received all of their back pay. Frustratingly, many of the “essential” workers, again who were forced to work without pay during the shutdown are still waiting to be paid.
The shutdown shone a light on a key problem in Wisconsin’s Unemployment Insurance laws, that in large part was brought to my attention by constituents. A number of federal employees contacted my office to express their concern that as an “essential” employee they were told they were ineligible for unemployment insurance coverage. After confirming that this was in fact the case, I am introducing a bill that would allow the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), which administers the Unemployment Insurance program, to make unemployment benefits eligible to claimants like the “essential” federal employees impacted by the shutdown. We need to ensure unemployment benefits for ALL federal workers residing in Wisconsin in the event of a government shutdown.