Persons with Disabilities File Legal Action to Veto Wisconsin’s Law Denying Them Unemployment Benefits | Local News I Racine County Eye
By Mario Coran, Wisconsin watch
Tracy Long of Fond du Lac County is no stranger to Wisconsin’s unemployment system. With 30 years of manufacturing experience, it has been subjected to the ups and downs of the industry. Long says she has applied for unemployment assistance dozens of times over the past three decades.
But after a work injury that resulted in three back surgeries in as many years prevented her from performing many of the tasks she had previously performed, in 2019 she turned to the system. state unemployment for relief – a system that would soon be strained. its breaking point by the pandemic.
This time, however, due to her disability, the system which in the past helped her to stay afloat prevented her from receiving aid intended to help the unemployed overcome job shortages. use.
Due to a 2013 law passed by a Republican-controlled legislature, Wisconsin prohibits workers who receive federal disability insurance benefits from Social Security from simultaneously receiving state unemployment assistance. Labor experts say such a ban only exists in another state.
“I’m so stuck in a corner, and it’s something I can’t figure out or do on my own anymore,” said Long, 50. At one point, she said an arbitrator from the Workforce Development Department accused her of fraud for benefits she had previously received – a charge that was later cleared. But Long was still required to reimburse an alleged overpayment.
With the help of Madison’s attorney, Victor Forberger, Long and seven other plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit in Madison U.S. District Court on Tuesday in hopes of recovering their denied unemployment benefits as well as other people with disabilities in Wisconsin – and overturn the law that barred them from accessing help.
According to the lawsuit, about 157,000 SSDI beneficiaries work in Wisconsin, or one in 17. The law promulgated in 2013 and revised in 2015 prohibits these workers from receiving benefits after their dismissal. The lawsuit seeks an injunction terminating the application of the law while the case is pending.
At a Tuesday news conference in Madison, Forberger said the state’s interpretation and application of Wisconsin’s unemployment compensation eligibility law is unconstitutional and violates federal law that prohibits discrimination based on a person’s disability.
“The goal here is to treat people with disabilities like everyone else,” Forberger told Wisconsin Watch. “This is discrimination against people with disabilities because the state said, ‘You know, because you get SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits – which you don’t get. that because you are disabled – you cannot get unemployment benefits ”… This is just fundamentally wrong.
DWD said he was aware of the complaint and pointed out that Gov. Tony Evers tried to overturn the law, but it was blocked by Republicans who run the state legislature. Democratic lawmakers are also looking to change the law.
“A solution to the Social Security disability insurance problem has been included in the governor’s proposed biennial budget for 2021-23,” DWD spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno said. “This item was removed by Republicans in the Legislature during the (budget) process.”
The lawsuit comes a year after the Wisconsin DWD, which administers unemployment benefits, reversed its policy of denying Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to workers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and who were also receiving federal disability benefits. The reversal followed a 2020 Wisconsin Watch / WPR report that revealed Wisconsin was denying PUA benefits to workers with disabilities.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, along with 26 other Republican lawmakers, claimed in a 2013 letter that the simultaneous collection of disability and unemployment benefits represented a “double deduction” which “may constitute fraud” .
Labor and unemployment insurance expert George Wentworth previously told Wisconsin Watch that North Carolina is the only other state to have such a ban.
SSDI guidelines allow and even encourage those who receive disability benefits to supplement their income with part-time work, as long as the employee does not earn more than $ 1,310 per month. The federal program is set up for those who have worked and paid social security contributions but who can no longer exercise “a truly gainful activity”.
This includes workers like Evan Johnson, a 55-year-old former truck driver who lives in the village of Weston, in central Wisconsin. Johnson said he had driven full time until 2015 when he broke his leg helping a friend cut down a tree.
After taking time off to heal, Johnson worked part-time when pain didn’t keep him from working, but eventually lost his job after the pandemic. In 2020, Johnson said he received a letter from the ministry telling him he was not eligible for unemployment because he was receiving SSDI benefits. He eventually received PUA benefits, but used most of it to pay off credit card debt he had accumulated to pay for basic expenses like food, gas, electricity, and health insurance.
“I knew it was going to be a long battle, but never in my wildest dreams did I think the Department of Workforce Development would take 14 months to get me (the PUA benefits)”, he said, referring to federal aid which ended in September. 4.
“When you live with credit cards and try to make ends meet, it doesn’t work so well when you’re sitting there waiting for any kind of income. ”
Forberger said that because workers with disabilities cannot collect unemployment benefits, the state essentially encourages employers – who pay unemployment benefits for their former workers – to discriminate based on the workers’ disability.
“Wisconsin has, to its shame, created a perverse incentive for employers to fire disabled workers first,” he said.
This story was produced as part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other media, and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Any works created, published, published or broadcast by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.