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Politically-charged battle over federal unemployment, job seekers tell a more complex tale

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MADISON, Wis. — “One of the things—is my age.”

Cyndy Suchomel of Deforest had just gotten back from a job interview Tuesday morning. At 64 years old, she’s had to dip into her retirement savings since she lost her job last May and wasn’t able to get unemployment benefits until April 2021.

“I’ve been applying for jobs,” she explained over the phone on Tuesday. Of her and others in her predicament– “I feel the pain.”

She was fired–for the first time in her long working career–from the call center where she was employed. She went on to win an appeal, proving she had been let go unjustly. That’s what caused an initial denial and delay of unemployment benefits, a hurdle cleared earlier this year when the Department of Workforce Development paid her benefits through May 9 of 2021. That included regular and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits, the state said.

When reached for comment, the DWD said that a timing issue had caused a delay in continued payout after Cyndy filed in June 2021 for the week ending in May 15. (Claims must be filed within two weeks.) Now, the state says they’re waiting on her to return a call to their adjudicator to make a determination on that claim.

Cyndy says she got confusing information from the state, and had help resubmitting the stalled claim.

“When they told me I had to submit a new claim, it didn’t make sense to me because I was still submitting a new weekly claim with my applications,” she said in an email.

Cyndy believes her age is preventing her from getting a callback after job interviews. And many of the jobs she finds available, she can’t physically do. The frustration over unpaid benefits is compounding, and she’s not sure yet what her future looks like.

Maybe she’ll get a seasonal job, she says, or figure out how to properly retire. In the meantime, she’s draining through retirement savings.

Lawmakers debate alleged link between benefits, worker shortage

On Tuesday, Republican leaders called an extraordinary session of the Assembly to take up an override to Gov. Evers’ veto of a bill that would have ended the extra federal unemployment benefit early. So far, 26 other states–all led by Republicans–have ended the federal program, currently set to expire in September.

The override vote failed, with no Democrats joining the GOP in their efforts; they would have needed five votes to achieve the two-thirds majority required.

Republicans say the extra benefit is the largest link to the statewide worker shortage, providing a disincentive to return to work while receiving $670 a week instead of the state’s $370.

“It’s not a silver bullet, there’s no doubt about that. But is it part, a major part of the problem? Yes,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a press conference. “The studies have shown, and anecdotally almost every person in this state of Wisconsin knows it.” (Studies, as indicated below, are inconclusive.)

Democrats point to a lower number of regular weekly applicants on unemployment benefits now than before the pandemic. (That’s only partially correct. The data is changing week by week, but in the week ending July 10, there were 50,569 recurring claims for benefits. In early January of 2020, there were more than 53,000 regular claims, but that dipped down to about 44,000 weekly claims for several weeks until the pandemic hit and claims skyrocketed. In 2021 for the latest data available, the week ending July 17, weekly claims were back up to more than 56,000.)

“Our worker shortage at the pay being offered is not a short term issue with a single solution, and we know that quality of life matters,” Assembly minority leader Gordon Hintz said in the floor session. “We need to rely on research and data and information, and not pander to those impulsive, “Oh, we got one on the governor here.”

Studies tell more nuanced story

There’s multiple studies researching the connection between unemployment, unemployment benefits, and a return to work–particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

Economists themselves largely agree there’s a lot of uncertainty with the available data. Studies don’t always paint a conclusive picture–or even a direct link between unemployment benefits and a reluctance to return to work.

A JP Morgan study found that many people on the boosted $600 federal unemployment supplement last year found work before the extra benefit expired, and overall found little evidence for a connection between increased benefits and employees choosing not to return to work. Another report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found the benefit appeared to cause one out of seven people to turn down jobs.

A Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce survey, which has repeatedly denounced Gov. Evers for not overturning the benefit, surveyed employers who in majority supported overturning the benefit, with many blaming it for their inability to hire. (The survey didn’t ask employers to provide reasons why they believed the benefit was to blame.)

But a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, studying unemployment data from 2013 through 2019, found that people on unemployment benefits actually search for work more heavily than those whose benefits have expired.

“Only a fraction of the unemployed collect UI benefits,” the report stated, “But those that do tend to search somewhat more intensely.”

Many factors combine to create roadblocks

Cyndy’s story isn’t unlike many in a recent report from Wisconsin Watch, detailing the health, child care, transportation, education, and myriad other components that were stalling job seekers in their quest for work.

Cyndy has been trying to schedule interviews and doing regular weekly searches for the entire pandemic, since she lost her job in May. She personally believes the extra $300 federal benefit might contribute to some who choose to stay out of work longer, but she points to other obstacles in the way for her and others.

“What I’m seeing in the job force, most of those jobs are like warehouse where you have to lift weights. I can’t lift weights, packaging, deliveries, stuff like that. So there are cases where there is limited jobs for people,” she explained.

“Some people say, ‘Why don’t you just go to McDonalds? There’s jobs everywhere.’ But most of those jobs are more physical jobs, and not everybody can do those.”

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