Work searches return for people claiming unemployment insurance

By: - May 20, 2021 6:47 am
"Unemployment" by Philippe Lhote picturing a mural of headless workers in uniform on the wall of an abandoned factory in Völklingen, Germany

“Unemployment” by Philippe Lhote picturing a mural on an abandoned factory in Völklingen, Germany CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Starting this Sunday, Wisconsin residents receiving unemployment compensation will be required to follow the state’s work-search procedure in order to keep receiving benefits.

In a 6-4 vote along party lines, the Legislature’s Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) ended an emergency rule that has suspended the work-search requirement since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee’s action is final.

With the search requirement reinstated, jobless people collecting unemployment insurance (UI) will have to report four work-search actions each week that they file an unemployment insurance claim with the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), which manages the UI system.

People claiming unemployment insurance must register and complete a resume at the website maintained by DWD, the agency announced Wednesday afternoon. A claimant who falls short of four qualifying work-search activities in a week could be denied that week’s UI payment. Denials can also be retroactive, forcing UI recipients to repay funds that they received.

Business lobbyists have been urging the state to reinstate the work search requirement, as have Republican lawmakers, complaining that it was needed to help ensure everyone who is able to work actively seeks a job.

Bill Smith, NFIB-Wisconsin (Screen capture | Wisconsin Eye)

“The labor shortage is holding back our job-generating small business employers, stifling economic growth and preventing Wisconsin’s bounce back from the pandemic,” said Bill Smith, Wisconsin director for the National Federation of Independent Business, during a public hearing before the committee’s vote Wednesday.  Reinstating the work search requirement “will encourage and improve labor participation, and will help address the current labor shortage. Not solve it, but it is a policy that will help employers find workers.”

The most recent jobs data for the state, for March, reported that about 117,000 people were unemployed and looking for work. The JCRAR chair, Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) said that while the number of jobless people is extraordinarily low, “I would argue that that’s why it is so imperative to get people out looking for work that are able bodied and able to go to work.”

A restaurant in his district that was already closed two days a week, Nass said, has “decided to shut down because they cannot find help.”

But both the head of DWD and Democratic lawmakers say reinstating the work search is unlikely to ease such difficulties because of how the pandemic has overturned the economy and the lives of workers. Worker advocates as well as some economists agree.

Amy Pechacek, DWD secretary-designee (Screen capture | Wisconsin Eye)

Among the people who are currently collecting unemployment and who are able to work, “there’s no evidence that they are not looking for work,” said Amy Pechacek, DWD’s secretary-designee, who testified at Wednesday’s hearing. Without reinstating the work search requirement, the DWD job center website already has more than 90,000 active resumes, Pechacek said.

About 44,680 Wisconsin residents were receiving regular unemployment insurance benefits in the week of May 9-15, according to DWD.

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said employers may need to raise wages, especially to compete with national chains such as McDonald’s and Walmart, which are paying $15 an hour. In addition, she, along with other Democrats on the panel said, reinstating the search requirement won’t address one significant barrier that has kept many potential workers — primarily women — out of the job market: the need for child care.


One in four child care centers have closed in the state since the pandemic began, according to Pechacek. “Without a location or a safe place to put a child, it’s difficult for people to re-engage back into the workforce,” she said.

Roys described the difficulty she has personally had obtaining child care because of continued capacity limits due to the pandemic. Because she could afford it if it were available, “I’m the luckiest,” she said, while the cost of child care could consume much of the paycheck for a worker making $15 an hour.

Sen. Kelda Roys 2021 head shot
Sen. Kelda Roys

“I guess I’m just really struggling with what I perceive to be a huge disconnect between the kinds of conversations that we’re having in this building and the actual reality of people’s lives over the past very difficult year — particularly women,” Roys said.

“I just don’t understand how people think that women — who are the ones who have really lost out in the pandemic and many of whom are devastated by the loss of child care and the loss of their working lives — are supposed to go back to work.”

Republicans who voted to end the work search were unmoved by such arguments.

Nass said he would expect Gov. Tony Evers to use some of Wisconsin’s $2.5 billion share of the American Rescue Plan Act funds from the federal government to support the child care industry and help address the problem.

“The issue of child care has been there prior to the pandemic,” said Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield). “I have a stepdaughter. I know how hard it is to be a single mother with two children — I get it.” But he suggested the issue was unrelated to the work search. “All we’re doing with this is just saying, ‘Now start searching for opportunities once again.’”

To fulfill the work search requirement, UI claimants will have to undertake a variety of activities each week, including applying for job openings. DWD lists some of the qualifying activities in an FAQ page on its website. Claimants will also have to log their searches and keep records to document them for up to a year.

The search also has restrictions. For example, claimants cannot count multiple job applications to the same employer unless they are at least four weeks apart, Pechacek said.

Reinstating the requirement — which DWD has already been planning in anticipation of the emergency rule’s expiration in early July — will require retraining department employees in how to process claims in order to ensure that they comply. About 1,900 people are processing UI claims for the agency. All but 500 of them were assigned to the work after the start of the pandemic.

In addition to ending the work search requirement, GOP lawmakers and business lobbyists have also pushed for an early end to $300 weekly federal unemployment supplements for jobless people in Wisconsin. Unlike the work search rule, however, the legislation to cut off the federal pay would require the governor’s signature — an outcome that Democratic lawmakers say is unlikely.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.