Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance Benefits in the Wake of COVID-19

March 24, 2020

Claims for Unemployment Insurance benefits in Wisconsin spiked 1,111% this past week as a number of businesses elected to voluntarily close or were forced to close (at least temporarily) in response to COVID-19.  Employees who are laid off or whose weekly hours or wages are reduced as a result of COVID-19 are potentially eligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits.

The Unemployment Insurance benefits process in Wisconsin is handled by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD).  Upon an adverse change in employment status employees must complete an initial claim application.  The DWD is recommending that employees who believe they are eligible apply online.  Employees must also file a weekly claim certification at the end of each week they seek payment.  Finally, employees must register with Wisconsin Job Service (within 14 days of applying for Unemployment Insurance benefits).  If Unemployment Insurance benefits are ultimately approved, the claim begins the week the employee applied.

Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance benefits are available to employees who are unemployed through no fault of their own.  Accordingly, if an employer must shut down operations because of COVID-19 and no work is available, an employee may be eligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits (provided he/she meets the monetary criteria and the weekly eligibility criteria).  Similarly, if an employer must lay off employees due to the loss of production caused by COVID-19, an employee may be eligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits (provided he/she meets the monetary criteria and the weekly eligibility criteria).

Some employees have been self-quarantining themselves due to suspicion of having COVID-19.  Similarly, some employees have been directed to quarantine due to suspicion of having COVID-19.  These employees will generally not be eligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits regardless of whether they self-quarantined or were directed to quarantine.  Again, Unemployment Insurance benefits are only available to an employee who is totally or partially unemployed through no fault of his/her own.  If the employee is self-quarantining, the employee is electing not to work (as opposed to the employer directing the employee not to work).  If the employee is in mandatory quarantine, the employee will not meet the eligibility criteria requiring him/her to be able to work, available for work and actively seeking suitable work.

However, the facts of each case are important.  For an employee who self-quarantines, if the employer allows the employee to telework, the employee certainly will not qualify for benefits.  But, if the employer requires the employee to stay home (out of precaution) and does not offer (or is not able to offer) telework, the individual might be eligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits (provided they meet the monetary and weekly eligibility criteria).

If an employee is ill because of COVID-19 and unable to work, the employee will not be eligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits because the employee will not meet the eligibility criteria requiring him/her to be able to work, available for work and actively seeking suitable work. 

Note that employers are required to post a notice (poster) concerning Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance benefits in a conspicuous place for all employees.  The poster must provide basic information for employees on when and how to apply for Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance benefits.  Employers should ensure they have posted the proper notice as failure to post such notice could subject the employer to penalties or fines.

On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, Governor Tony Evers issued an Emergency Order waiving the work search requirements and modifying the availability of work requirements for Unemployment Insurance benefits for employees impacted by COVID-19.  The Emergency Order waives the requirement that those applying for Unemployment Insurance benefits conduct at least four (4) weekly work search actions.  The Emergency Order will remain in effect for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.  Governor Evers has also asked the Wisconsin Legislature to repeal the one (1) week waiting period for Unemployment Insurance benefits.

For questions regarding this article, please contact the author, Attorney Tony J. Renning (email: trenning@strangpatteson.com; telephone: 833.654.1177), or your Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, s.c., attorney.