Wisconsin’s jobless rate has skyrocketed to nearly 27% due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to a new estimate from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
The projection mirrors skyrocketing unemployment claims—which have surpassed 300,000 initial claims since mid-March—as businesses shut down across the state in an attempt to limit Wisconsinites’ exposure to the respiratory disease that has has killed 111 and sickened more than 2,800 people in Wisconsin.
However, Dennis Winters, chief economist with DWD, said the analysis projects that close to 725,000 Wisconsin residents—across 48,000 private establishments—are out of work because of the pandemic. He added another 109,000 employees already were unemployed before the outbreak.
Just a year ago in April 2019 the state had recorded its lowest unemployment rate ever at 2.8%.
A 27% jobless rate could be historic, Winters said, noting that the state’s unemployment rate peaked at a little over 10% in early 2010, at the height of the Great Recession.
“The only numbers that even approach this, with any history that we have, would be the Great Depression, and even that number is a little nebulous,” Winters said. He added that, based on limited data, the unemployment rate at that time had been estimated at between 25% and 30%.
Winters said the projection was made following the same model used by Moody’s Analytics and reported in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, that estimated more than one-quarter of the nation’s economy had shut down over the pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday reported more than 6.6 million initial unemployment claims in the country last week. There were more than 6.8 million claims in the previous week.
Winters added that numbers are subject to change, due in large part to the overall uncertainty surrounding the outbreak and how long businesses will remain closed.
The state’s unemployment fund balance was sitting at more than $1.97 billion at the close of 2019, up from less than $600 million in 2007, before the last recession hit.
The state unemployment fund is filled through payroll taxes on employers and used to provide temporary benefits for qualifying workers who lose their job.
But while the unemployment fund is in a better position than it was 13 years ago, Wisconsin lags behind 30 states in terms of the jobless fund’s preparedness to weather a recession.
A February solvency report on state unemployment insurance trust funds by the U.S. Department of Labor ranked Wisconsin 31st in the nation—falling just below the threshold to be eligible for interest-free borrowing. The report compares the state jobless fund balance with total wages paid in a year.
There have been more than 318,000 initial unemployment claims made in Wisconsin since March 15, according to preliminary numbers from the Department of Workforce Development.
In the same span last year, just over 19,000 unemployment claims were made.
While much remains uncertain, DWD spokesman Tyler Tichenor said it does appear that initial claims have begun to drop off slightly since March 30, when more than 24,000 claims were made—the most in any single day since the outbreak began.
“It looks like we’ve kind of hit a peak and we’re leveling off, but anything can change that,” Tichenor said.
For those on unemployment benefits, earnings determine a claimant’s benefit rate, with the maximum weekly payment capped at $370. Benefits can be claimed for up to 26 weeks.
Gov. Tony Evers and GOP leaders in the Legislature agree on waiving the state’s one-week waiting period for unemployment benefit eligibility, but it’s uncertain when lawmakers will take up discussion on any legislation.
“I was encouraged to see this proposal gain bipartisan support and now ask that the legislature act swiftly to guide the law change through both houses and get it on Governor Evers’ desk as soon as possible,” DWD secretary Caleb Frostman said in a Tuesday statement. “The stability of Wisconsin families and our economy depends on timely legislative action.”
The dramatic increase in joblessness has put an incredible strain on the state’s DWD office, which processes unemployment claims. The department has increased staffing to manage the growing workload but also had to shut down in-person job centers due to social distancing requirements implemented to prevent the disease’s spread.
Tichenor said another challenge is that the department had adapted to a lower operational budget in previous years, due in large part to what had been a strong economy and a low unemployment rate.
“State unemployment programs in general are just not built to handle this rapid change from a low unemployment economy to a sudden high unemployment economy,” Tichenor said. “Imagine the Great Recession, but everybody loses their job at once.”
On March 18, Evers ordered all bars and restaurants to halt sit-in services. A week later, Evers instituted a safer-at-home order that shut down nonessential businesses until April 24.
The order includes a wide range of exemptions for farms and factories to grocery stores and retailers that supply those working from home.
However, large sectors of the economy that tend to draw walk-in business were forced to close their doors.
TOWN OF FULTON
I’m prone to manic giggling lately.
I’ve been at home too long.
When I did go into town today, a fellow shopper at an essential store described my mask and gloves as “b-------.” Thanks, pal. If I’d had my wits about me, I would have told him to go to the pizza section and pick out his tombstone. Giggle, snort, grimace.
I had another outburst when I heard seed companies are overwhelmed with orders. Everyone, it seems, wants to plant a victory garden.
During World War I and World War II, the government encouraged people to grow their own food. It helped save food for the troops, but more important, it gave people a sense that they were doing their part.
Let me speak plainly, just like the guy at the store: If you want to start your own seeds so you can grow vegetables from scratch, congratulations. It requires time and patience, but it can be rewarding.
If you want to start seeds because you think you’re going to save money, well, we wish you the best.
Here are a few plain truths and practical advice about seed starting and getting a garden going.
Q: I am alternatively terrified and anxious. Will gardening help?
A: Yes. Although it’s a relatively new field, horticultural therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression and stress.
Q: Isn’t it just like a journalist to giggle maniacally about seed starting?
A: I do not giggle as a journalist, but as a gardener. One of my favorite books is “The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden.”
The title says it all. An ideal seed-starting operation involves a lot of equipment: grow lights, a heated grow pad, seed-starting mix, a spritzer bottle, and plastic flats or biodegradable pots.
Here are the basics of tomato seed starting from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a commercial and home garden company with an excellent reputation. And, no, I do not own stock in Johnny’s.
Johnny’s advises not to start too early. Leggy plants that have open flowers or fruit when planted outside won’t do well.
“Sow ¼ inch deep in flats, using a soilless mix (not potting soil) five to six weeks before plants can be transplanted after frost danger,” Johnny’s says.
“Keep temperature of the starting mix at 75 to 90 degrees. Tomato seeds germinate very slowly in cooler soil. When the first true leaves develop, transplant into plug trays or 3- to 4-inch pots for large, stocky, seven- to eight-week transplants for earliest crops. Grow seedlings at 60 to 70 degrees. Water only enough to keep the mix from drying. Fertilize with fish emulsion or a soluble, complete fertilizer.”
Now comes the tricky part: transplanting outside or “hardening off.” That’s the process of exposing plants to sun and wind for a little while each day. Do this repeatedly, gradually increasing the time outside.
If you’re not keeping track of expenses, a mini greenhouse can help. The one I bought at Aldi’s for $20 is in its fourth season. It has shelving with a plastic covering that can be zipped open and closed, helping to keep the sun and wind off your tender seedlings.
If you’re looking for more cost-effective gardening, buy plants at your local nursery in May. When independent nurseries such as K&W Greenery and Oak Village open up again in May—here’s hoping—they’ll need our support.
Q: My Aunt Florence used to grow tomato plants from seeds on her window sill. Will that work?
A: Please do grow plants on the window sill. Tomatoes grown from seed on a window sill don’t germinate as well and tend to be leggy. That means when you move them outside, you have to be careful about exposing them to sun and wind.
Healthy plants are going to be more resistant to the diseases tomato plants can pick up.
Q: I’m determined to start seeds. How do I know which seeds to start and when they should be started?
A: Most seed packages will say something such as, “Start eight weeks before last frost or before plants can be transplanted outside.” The last frost in our area is usually May 15. However, most gardeners won’t put frost-sensitive plants such as tomatoes and peppers into the ground before June. 1.
If the last frost has passed and the soil temperature is still too cool, the plants will sulk until the weather warms up or—worst-case scenario—pick up a nasty fungus before they’re able to withstand it.
Q: I want to plant something right this instant, and I want it to be easy. What are my options?
Lettuce is hardy and can be planted as early as the soil can be worked, according to Johnny’s. It grows best in temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees, but seeds can sprout at temperatures as low as 40 degrees.
Unless the weather gets really cold or really wet, I’ll plant my lettuce in the ground in about two weeks.
Start your lettuce seeds in pots on the porch.
Also, for the record, I’m starting my Costa mix snapdragons from seed. According to Johnny’s, they have “exceptionally robust stems” and are “bred for performance under short days and low temperatures.”
Q: I’m not a gardener but want to plant a victory garden. What can I grow successfully my first year?
A: Lots. Easy, cool-weather crops you can start in May include lettuce, carrots, green onions, kale, beets, peas and cabbage. Put them in the ground and water gently until germination.
When the frost danger has passed, plant summer and winter squash and beans. That’s also the time to buy healthy tomato, pepper, eggplant and other plants from a nursery.
Q: All that seems like a lot of work. What else can I do to get fresh vegetables throughout the summer? Can I come to your house for shelling peas?
A: Step. Away. From. The. Peas. Garden shelling peas are the champagne of crops. If you want fresh vegetables, consider the farmers market or—even better—a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA. With a CSA, you pay in advance for vegetables from spring through fall. Often, you can visit the farm and see what the farmers do to keep your food safe and delicious.
Benny Useni’s parents have worked in the restaurant business since he was born.
Growing up in Illinois, he said they were never the rich family on the block. They didn’t have much, but they didn’t need much in order to give.
If his parents saw someone who was homeless, Useni said they would make up a sandwich and send him to hand it over before coming back to work.
That’s how he was brought up: Nobody should go to sleep hungry.
“If there was people in need, growing up in the restaurant industry, I would always watch my parents just say, ‘We got the breakfast today,’” he said earlier this week. “It kind of stuck with us all the way through our life. That’s how we were taught.”
Useni and his wife, Jeta, own the Citrus Cafe, which she manages. They also own two Whiskey Ranch Bar & Grill locations in Janesville and Delavan with Ilir Banushi.
The restaurant industry is one of many hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But Useni said if you can cut lasagna into two pieces, you can cut it into three.
“Whatever we have, we can still share,” he said.
Useni said they are giving hot meals to those in need at their three locations. A Facebook post from the Citrus Cafe last week encourages those who are unemployed, disabled or elderly to reach out.
“Please don’t allow anyone in your home to go to sleep with an empty stomach,” the post states. “We have to be more grateful and less selfish.”
So far, Useni said the Citrus Cafe gets about 10 to 15 calls a day about hot meals. Janesville’s Whiskey Ranch location is pretty similar, he said, with maybe about 10 calls per day.
The idea originally started as an offer to all employees, many of whom rely on tips. From there, Useni started hearing more from residents who were worried about having enough food.
He said keeping his businesses running was a way to help his workers.
“At this point, we’re not making money,” Useni said. “We don’t even know what our losses are going to be until this is all over with.”
But these businesses aren’t shouldering the entire load alone.
Useni said community support has grown. Neighbors have reached out. Some regular customers call and say they want to help. Others ask to add $10 to their breakfast orders.
“The community supported us for all these years,” he said. “Now it’s our time to do our part, step up and help whoever we can.”
Robert “Bud” J. Albrecht
Doris J. Ferger
Epigmenio C. Olvera