MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ call for the Republican-controlled Legislature to waive a one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits in the face of soaring claims will be an early test of how well the two sides can work together in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year Republicans rejected the waiver when Evers proposed it. This time, the idea comes amid a national emergency that was unimaginable then. It also comes as businesses, chambers of commerce and others that typically align with Republicans are urging swift and decisive action to help employees who are finding themselves suddenly jobless and struggling to get by.
“It’s a brutal time,” said Omar Shaikh, co-owner of the Carnevor restaurant in Milwaukee. He had to lay off all of his roughly 60 employees when Milwaukee ordered all restaurants closed on Tuesday, a move that came just a day before Evers closed them all statewide.
“I’m very worried that half the restaurants will have to close and never reopen,” Shaikh said. Allowing displaced workers to immediately qualify for unemployment benefits would be “very, very helpful,” he said.
Like in other states, the number of people filing for unemployment in Wisconsin is skyrocketing. Last week, the average number of claims per day was around 700, said Caleb Frostman, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
On Sunday, there were 1,500 claims followed by 4,300 on Monday, 8,500 on Tuesday and 15,000 on Wednesday, Frostman said. Unemployment benefits are $370 a week.
Even though it’s been a partisan issue before, Frostman said he was optimistic Republicans would waive the waiting period and have it apply retroactively to help those already unemployed. The fact that businesses that traditionally back Republicans are pushing for it also helps, he said.
“I’m as optimistic as I can be that we’ll come to a productive conclusion on this,” Frostman said.
Evers and Republican legislative leaders, who found little common ground before the pandemic, have been talking regularly and said they are working well together to come up with an emergency response.
However, neither Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald nor Assembly Speaker Robin Vos returned messages for comment asking whether that would response would include reversing course on the unemployment waiting period.
Shaikh, the Milwaukee restaurant owner, said he hoped that policy makers could come together extend some type of subsidy to help small businesses like his make it through.
“We’re just waiting to see what the national government does, what the state government does,” he said. “We’re trying to stay positive in a very difficult time.”
As of Thursday, there were 155 positive cases of coronavirus across Wisconsin and two deaths. For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
Trying to slow the spread of the virus led Evers to order all bars and restaurants statewide to close and to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people at a time. He’s also putting together proposals for the Legislature to take up, including the unemployment waiting time waiver.
Taking action now, in the face of an unprecedented national emergency, doesn’t mean the waiver will be in place forever or that those opposed to it suddenly support it, said Steve Bass, vice president and lobbyist for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
“There’s a reason they’re called extraordinary measures,” he said.
MMAC represents about 2,000 businesses that employ more than 300,000 people in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. Most of its members support waiving the waiting period, Bass said.
“Additional tools give them additional resources to deal with a new and uncertain situation,” he said. “It’s not going to be the perfect tool for every business operation, but it’s better to have more tools than less.”