Top Republican lawmakers are proposing to end Wisconsin’s participation in federal programs that provide more unemployment benefits to residents who lost work due to the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to boost the number of workers in the state.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Sen. Howard Marklein proposed legislation Tuesday that would stop paying an additional $300 per week in unemployment benefits, among other pandemic-related benefits.
“The government needs to quit competing with our local employers. We need a reset here,” Marklein said at a news conference in the state Capitol.
The legislation is likely to move quickly. Vos said he wants a hearing on the bill by next week.
Gov. Tony Evers, who could veto the bill, signaled his opposition. His spokesperson Britt Cudaback said, “If Republicans are interested in putting this pandemic behind us, they’ll stop playing politics with out economic recovery” and approve Evers’ state budget proposal.
The idea is opposed by many Democrats, who say worker shortages are not a result of additional unemployment benefits alone.
“Wisconsin Republicans want you to take whatever job there is, regardless of pay/benefits/working conditions. Trying to end $300 Pandemic UI 4 months early is about one thing—keeping wages low by forcing people to work for less than what they’re worth,” Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, tweeted Tuesday.
Vos said Republican lawmakers haven’t talked to Evers about the idea but are willing to negotiate to gain his support.
Ron Buholzer of Klondike Cheese in Monroe said Tuesday he has 34 open positions and is struggling to find workers, pushing him to raise starting wages from $14 per hour to $16 per hour. The boost in pay has not addressed the problem, he said.
“Sixteen has helped a little, but we’re still at very, very few applicants,” he said. “The help we have, they’re getting tired. Long days and long hours when you’re short of people ... the real strain is on the people who are there every day and the only way we can really fix that is more people.”
Buholzer’s company had issues attracting and retaining workers in 2017, too, according to a Wisconsin State Journal report. The shortage then was attributed to workers being fired for missing too many days, quitting because the work or commute was too difficult, or because it was easy to find another job, according to the report.
Buholzer has donated about $125,000 to Republican candidates over the last 24 years, including $5,500 to Marklein, according to campaign finance records.
David Kyhn, who provides in-home services to elderly and disabled residents in the Milwaukee area, said at the news conference he is in “desperate need of caregivers” and is down 75% in applicants since the beginning of the year. Kyhn donated smaller amounts to Republican lawmakers in recent years.
Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Congress passed legislation to pay people an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits because hundreds of thousands were thrown out of work in each state. Congress later reduced the amount of the additional payments to $300 a week.
The arrangement increases the maximum weekly amount an unemployed worker in Wisconsin can receive from $370 to $670. The federal government pays for all of the cost of the additional benefits, which are set to run through Labor Day.
The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to 473,000, a record low during the pandemic.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in April, Wisconsin has the ninth-lowest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in the country at 3.8%, following neighbor Iowa, which is at 3.6%. More recent employment data was not available Tuesday.
President Joe Biden last week downplayed the idea that the additional unemployment benefits are to blame for worker shortages but urged the U.S. Department of Labor to prod states to revive requirements to search for jobs and take suitable positions that are offered to applicants.
“Anyone collecting unemployment who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment benefits,” he said May 11.
The state legislation would end the additional benefits and comes just as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Republican members of the House sent a letter to Evers asking him to end the additional benefits in order to boost worker supply.
But the idea is opposed by Democrats, who say the proposal ignores concerns workers have with finding child care when classrooms close because of COVID-19 outbreaks or with their own health since the pandemic is subsiding but still present.
“A bunch of members of Congress who make $174,000 a year saying the economic crisis is over doesn’t just do it,” U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents rural Dane County, said last week.
“From restaurants and bars to the meeting industry to the travel industry, those are still decimated industries, and you’re punishing every single person who works in those areas if you do this.”
Vos said Tuesday he believes employers will work with employees to address such concerns while keeping them in their jobs.
The Main Street Alliance, a new business association, disagrees with Vos, Marklein and the state’s largest chamber of commerce on the proposal.
“We need to pass the #AmericanFamiliesPlan to deal with structural issues,” a spokesman tweeted, referring to a $1.8 trillion plan from Biden that would pay for child care, paid leave, universal pre-K and free community college.
The Rock County Dairy Breakfast is on this year, and no one is happier about the June 5 event than the McNally family. As this year’s hosts, they are excited for an estimated crowd of 4,000 people to enjoy a pancake breakfast at their 500-acre farm at 5928 E. Bingham Road, town of Harmony.
After considering it for several years, Jeff McNally said they were ready to host the breakfast last year.
“We finally got everything updated around here,” he said. When it was canceled due to the pandemic, they were disappointed. But they stayed ready for this year.
The whole family, which includes Jeff; his wife Tonia; their children Emma, 18, and Owen, 15; and Jeff’s mother, Angie, is passionate about farming. With fewer farms around, the family is eager to share its passion with the community. Small farm animals, craft booths and other activities will give visitors plenty to do as they explore the farm that is more than 100 years old.
While hosting an event like this can feel overwhelming, the Rock County Dairy Promotion Council works closely with the family every step of the way. Julie Funk, president of the council, said the council provides everything needed for the breakfast.
While the McNallys are busy getting the farm ready, the council works to provide groceries, tents, tables and chairs and helps schedule live music. Included in the breakfast: all-you-can-eat pancakes, a ham patty, yogurt or applesauce, cheese, milk and coffee, and ice cream. Classic country music will be provided by Tim O’Grady Jr., a singer-songwriter from Janesville.
Other support comes from Milton High School FFA members, who help with the petting zoo and other tasks. Funk estimates it takes about 200 volunteers to run the breakfast.
According to Funk, visitors to the dairy breakfast will notice a few differences this year. Working with the Rock County Health Department, event organizers created a plan to ensure health department expectations were met. With the mask mandates lifted this month, wearing a mask is now a personal choice and Funk hopes people will respect others’ choices. Gloves will be available for workers and individually wrapped items will be used as much as possible. Three dining areas will be available with tables arranged so each family or small group has its own table, spaced for distancing. Hand sanitizer will be available at different locations.
WJVL will broadcast live until 8 a.m., and visitors are encouraged to tune in for any updates, especially in the event of inclement weather. If the weather is bad, parking will be at Milton High School with shuttles to the breakfast.
The McNallys plan to help wherever needed during the breakfast.
“It’s good for people who have never been on a farm to come out and see where their food comes from,” Jeff said.
He wants visitors to walk away knowing that farmers take special care with their animals, their land and their environment.
“We live here, too,” he said. “We take care of everything.”
Running the farm has always been a family affair for the McNallys.
Angie is the bookkeeper these days, but when Jeff was still in school, she helped her husband, Tom, with all the chores.
In recent years, Tonia has become more involved.
“I feed the calves and do whatever else needs to be done, including running errands,” she said.
Emma and Owen regularly help with chores, too. Owen says his favorite task is milking.
Emma, a student at UW-Platteville, is studying biology and genetics. She is not sure yet what she’ll do in the future, but she is thinking about something in agriculture, plant genetics or embryology.
“You build a lot of responsibility and work ethic and a good sense of community,” she said. Naturally, a strong sense of family comes, too. Although she’s not certain about her future, she didn’t rule out returning to the farm.
Housing4OurVets started its mission providing transitional living to veterans in 2011. A decade later, the organization has helped hundreds of former service members out of homelessness.
The organization is part of Rock Valley Community Programs and offers temporary living to veterans for up to two years before making a shift to permanent housing. Currently, the group has 24 studio apartments capable of housing nearly 50 veterans.
Such programs as Housing4OurVets have helped reduce the number of homeless veterans on the street on any given night from 150,000 to less than 40,000.
But 2020 was a year unlike any other for the social service provider, and Housing4OurVets staff said the pandemic completely changed how they operate. While the pandemic forced the team to consider new standards related to shared living spaces, the group’s services did not stop.
“It was a stressful last year for us with COVID-19,” Assistant Director Matthew Walthius said. “The population of veterans we usually serve are considered high risk since most of the people we work with are a bit older or have an underlying medical condition. It was so important that we keep working with the vets through the pandemic. People were still having crises and becoming homeless. That didn’t stop.”
Out of the chaos wrought by the pandemic, a new path emerged that is expected to help the organization grow.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is planning to offer grants to convert shared temporary living spaces to single-occupancy rooms. The problem came from infection control and the challenges that stem from living in group settings.
“We are hoping that by next year we get grant funding to expand to another part of our building,” Walthius said. “The funding would cover construction and renovation to convert those shared spaces. We are hoping that this will allow us to serve even more veterans through the expansion.”
In the meantime, Walthius said, the organization is focusing on returning to normal after offering vaccines to staff.
“We’re working right now to get back to a sense of normalcy and just working with the veterans to get back towards thinking about things long term,” he added.
To mark Memorial Day, the group will host a barbecue for residents along with a commemoration ceremony to mark the 10-year anniversary.
“It’s incredible to look back, but you try to help veterans improve their lives day to day,” Walthius said. “It’s a miracle we’ve been able to serve so many, and it makes us take note of what works well and what doesn’t. This is a great time for us to reflect.”
Veterans who are eligible to stay in the temporary housing are required to have a discharge from their branch of service that isn’t dishonorable and be housing insecure or fleeing a domestic violence situation. Local veterans are the focus, but the group will help vets from all across the region.
“We can’t do what we do on our own,” Walthius said. “There’s no point reinventing the wheel. We work intensely with the VA’s homeless department out of Madison and the VA clinic in Rockford, (Illinois), along with the Center for Veterans Issues. We also work closely with the Wisconsin Balance of State of Continuous Care and the Homeless Intervention Task Force in Rock and Walworth counties. Collaboration is key to what we do.”
Gregory Wayland Arnold
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