Wisconsin workers who also collect federal disability payments and have lost work hours because of COVID-19 should start applying for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), and the state unemployment insurance system will work to move those applications along, the state’s labor secretary told the Wisconsin Examiner on Tuesday.
Late Monday, the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD) got word from the U.S. Department of Labor that Social Security Disability Insurance recipients who were put out of work are eligible for PUA in Wisconsin, although a 2013 state law bars them from regular unemployment compensation.
“If they’re out of work through no fault of their own, for one of those COVID-related reasons under PUA, we’d certainly encourage those folks to apply,” said Caleb Frostman, DWD secretary. “We’re relieved to have that blanket prohibition of SSDI [participation] removed for eligibility purposes and to move forward with this new guidance.”
About 1,500 people who receive SSDI and who also worked and were laid off or had their hours reduced in the pandemic have applied to DWD’s unemployment division for PUA, a special program set by the federal government as part of the main COVID-19 relief legislation that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed in March.
Frostman said Tuesday that it is his understanding that, except for a small number of people, applications from SSDI recipients seeking payment under PUA were set aside without action after he wrote June 9 to U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, asking for clarification on whether workers who collect SSDI could qualify for PUA.
The number of people actually denied PUA is anywhere from less than 10 to “the low double digits,” Frostman said. Frostman said those denials are now being reversed, and DWD’s unemployment compensation computer system is being reprogrammed to reflect that SSDI recipients are eligible for PUA.
Of claims denied as well as applications put on hold while awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that SSDI recipients are eligible for PUA, “We can work through those, hopefully, relatively quickly,” Frostman said. “But we’ll continue to uncover likely more [SSDI] applicants as we get through the remaining PUA queue that we haven’t gotten to yet.”
He said of the set-aside applicants, “we will certainly work on those quickly as possible.”
SSDI recipients have, since 2013, been automatically excluded from the unemployment compensation system. When unemployment claims soared as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in the state, shutting down a number of businesses temporarily, laid-off workers who also collected SSDI hoped that they would be able to get PUA.
At first DWD rejected those applications, following guidance from the Chicago DOL office. Subsequently Frostman questioned that guidance and wrote to Scalia in Washington, D.C., leading to Monday’s letter officially authorizing the state to allow SSDI recipients to qualify for PUA because they were not eligible for regular unemployment compensation under Wisconsin law.
While Frostman said it was his instruction to put a pause on SSDI applicants’ claims while awaiting the reply to his June 9 letter, the department issued denials in the last two months and defended them in the unemployment compensation appeals system.
Victor Forberger, a Madison attorney who has been representing some SSDI applicants who were denied, said Tuesday that since news spread Monday night that they would not be disqualified, he has been hearing from clients whose applications had been previously denied about the status of their cases now.
Forberger said he’s left messages with DWD, hoping to give department officials feedback on how to improve their handling of SSDI applicants’ cases, but had not yet heard back from them by mid-afternoon on Tuesday.
The lawyer said he hoped to see the department follow up with outreach to SSDI recipients. Frostman, he said, “should be getting on all the TV stations and doing interviews, saying, ‘Apply now!’”