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Republicans move to reinstate work-search requirement

May 19, 2021 GMT

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican legislators reinstated a requirement Wednesday that unemployed people look for work in order to qualify for benefits, advancing part of a broader GOP effort to alleviate a statewide worker shortage.

The Legislature’s Republican-controlled rules committee voted to reinstate the requirement beginning Sunday, pushing aside Democratic members’ complaints that the move is premature and won’t help employers fill vacancies.

“It’s not onerous to ask people to look for work while receiving unemployment benefits,” committee co-chairman Rep. Adam Neylon, a Republican from Pewaukee, said during a hearing ahead of the vote. “We’re trying to be responsive to the conditions out there. What we hear is we need more workers.”

Wisconsin law requires people seeking unemployment benefits to search for work at least four times a week. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order suspending the requirement in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold and businesses shut down.

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Lawmakers have extended the suspension through emergency rules. But Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has fallen as the pandemic has waned — it now stands at 3.8%, far below the national average of 6% — and employers can’t find workers.

Republicans argue that generous unemployment benefits are encouraging people to stay home. Labor experts say it’s not just the benefits; some have been reluctant to return to work because they’re afraid of catching COVID-19, many women have left the workforce to care for their children and others have found new occupations, they say.

The work-search requirement was set to automatically take effect again in July, but Republicans don’t want to wait that long as businesses struggle to fill vacancies.

State Department of Workforce Development Secretary Amy Pechacek urged the committee during the hearing to just let the requirement come back into play in July. She said the agency is training new staffers on how to track work searches after turning off their tracking systems last year, and is preparing an outreach campaign to let recipients know they’ll need to start looking for work again.

Reinstating search requirements immediately will result in claims being delayed or denied because they won’t meet the requirements, she said. She also argued that unemployment benefits aren’t keeping recipients out of the job market.

Bill Smith, director of the Wisconsin chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, told the committee that employers are struggling. Reinstating the search requirement won’t solve the problem but would help, he said.

Republican committee members argued that the Biden administration earlier this month announced it would work with states to reinstate work-search requirements but Wisconsin Democrats don’t like the requirements and are trying to get around them.

“When a person is receiving unemployment, should they also be looking for a job?” Sen. Duey Stroebel of Saukville bluntly asked Pechacek. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Pechacek said.

All six Republicans on the committee voted for reinstatement. All four Democrats voted against it.

The vote was one prong of a larger Republican plan to erase generous pandemic-related unemployment benefits. The GOP on Tuesday unveiled a bill that would end a $300 weekly federal unemployment supplement. The payment is on top of the state’s weekly $370 unemployment benefit.

The supplement is set to expire Sept. 6, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he’s worried it could be extended. More than a dozen states with Republican governors have already moved to eliminate the federal supplement.

The bill also would prohibit the DWD from waiving work-search requirements for any reason related to COVID-19.

Vos has said the bill could get floor votes as early as next month. Evers opposes it, however, and said Wednesday he was “strongly considering” vetoing the measure.

The governor called the GOP push to restore the work-search requirement and eliminate the federal supplement “Republican talking points.” The real problem is Wisconsin just doesn’t have enough people, he said.

“We all know in order for us to have a robust economy we need more people in the state of Wisconsin,” Evers said, “and one of the ways we can draw people to Wisconsin is to ensure we have a high quality of life. And if we focus on that instead of the drumbeat of ‘Let’s take money away from people who are unemployed,’ I think we will be better off.”

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Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.