The proposals the Republican authors rolled out Tuesday would address Wisconsin’s labor shortage by increasing barriers to government assistance programs, including Medicaid, Foodshare and unemployment insurance.
While employers have reported increased difficulty in filling vacancies over the past year, analysts have pointed to a series of barriers that have prevented potential employees from accepting employment: lack of access to affordable child care, transportation and some necessary skills. In the pandemic, fear of exposure to the virus responsible for COVID-19 has also discouraged some job seekers.
However, the proposals that lawmakers announced Tuesday at a Capitol press conference did not address any of these.
“We have a lot of well-paying base salaries, and then we have this large pool of workers available, we have a skilled workforce in the state of Wisconsin,” said Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), who blamed “this wall that the government seems to have put up” between the two.
The bills instead include a new Medicaid eligibility limit — called BadgerCare in Wisconsin. Under the proposal, beneficiaries who refuse a job or a raise to avoid losing eligibility for health insurance coverage would be kicked out of the program for six months. The bill does not explain how violations would be monitored.
Another proposal would prevent the state Department of Health Services (DHS) from automatically renewing Medicaid eligibility for beneficiaries.
A series of other proposals target the Unemployment Insurance (UI) system. It would reduce the number of weeks an unemployed person could collect compensation when the statewide unemployment rate is low, while giving them more time to look for a new job when the unemployment rate is raised.
Another would rename the unemployment insurance program “re-employment assistance” and increase job search requirements for unemployment insurance recipients. A third party would disqualify benefits for the week if an unemployment insurance recipient schedules a job interview but does not show up. And a fourth would institute a series of tougher pay requirements for the unemployed, as well as provisions to extend call center hours and reassign state employees to the system when claims rise, such as they did so at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another bill would reinstate the work requirement in the state FoodShare program which was implemented under the then government. Scott Walker in 2015 but which DHS waived during the pandemic. It would also require DHS to move forward with implementing a drug testing requirement for FoodShare recipients.
An additional bill would require regular eligibility checks for aid programs and allow various programs to cross-check data to verify eligibility.
The common premise of all pieces of legislation is that “people who receive benefits, government benefits, are not part of the labor force,” Kapenga said. “We want to reduce that.”
Republican leaders want to push the package through the Legislative Assembly within the next six weeks. “We expect to act on these issues in both chambers by the end of February before the session adjourns for the year,” Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) said at the press conference. of the GOP.
However, early signs after their introduction suggested that Democratic lawmakers would reject the measures and urge Governor Tony Evers to veto them.
“Today’s GOP package fails to address the real challenges facing Wisconsin’s workforce,” said Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine ) in a press release. She accused Republican lawmakers “of stepping up their efforts to undermine Wisconsin’s unemployment system and jeopardize the essential assistance that keeps individuals and families afloat.”
The package has been criticized by health care and small business advocates.
“These ideas of punishing working people by denying them unemployment insurance, health care and food for their families, including children, are deeply flawed,” said Shawn Phetteplace, Wisconsin director for Main Street. Alliance, a small business group. “With Wisconsin’s unemployment rate at 3% and major structural impediments for families, this is not the solution to our labor issues.”
Main Street Alliance has advocated expanding BadgerCare under the Affordable Care Act, allowing people whose incomes reach up to 138% of the federal poverty guideline to be eligible for the program. This would make it “easier for workers to increase hours,” Phetteplace noted.
The Republican majority in the Legislature has repeatedly rejected calls from Governor Tony Evers to accept the federally subsidized expansion.
William Parke-Sutherland, health care expert at Kids Forward, which analyzes policy and advocates for low-income families, said a full-time minimum-wage worker is already paid too much to qualify for Medicaid. But many low-wage jobs don’t have health insurance. “And there is no requirement in the bill that the job they would be required to take offers health insurance,” Parke-Sutherland said.
Democrats and advocates for the poor have long pointed out that some people who rely on Medicaid may be reluctant to accept a pay raise that would disqualify them from coverage.
“People want to work, but when a 25-cent raise could mean the loss of access to essential medical care, it puts working families in an impossible position,” Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said Tuesday. ). “Families deserve a clear, gradual path out of assistance programs – so they aren’t thrown headlong off a cliff into poverty.”
Johnson noted that the bills were being offered even as the state “is still in the midst of a global pandemic and is seeing record cases of COVID-19.”
David Riemer, a longtime labor and labor market analyst, compared the premise of the bills to claims that extra federal unemployment benefits in the first year and a half of the pandemic were responsible for the difficulty employers had in filling jobs. The evidence showed otherwise, said Riemer, who has served as an adviser to state and local governments.
In April 2020, the first full month of the pandemic, employment numbers plummeted in Wisconsin and nationally. But within months they started coming back regularly and have continued to do so ever since. Job growth has slowed in the months since federal supplements ended in early September, he added, and national job openings have leveled off.
“The big picture is a massive return of unemployed and underemployed Americans to the workforce,” Riemer said. “Imagine we’re going to fix this by removing more props and just focusing on reducing the incentive to be ‘lazy’ and the work disincentive – given what we’ve been through since the end of the Extensive UI is just a fantasy. It’s really not data driven, it’s ideology driven.