MADISON — Last year as thousands of people struggled to navigate the state unemployment system in the early days of the pandemic, it shed light on Wisconsin's law disqualifying disability recipients from accessing unemployment benefits.
Wisconsin is one of two states with such a ban, and on Tuesday a group of labor attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court challenging the eligibility law.
"This is discrimination. People are being denied these unemployment benefits that should have been paid years ago," said Labor Attorney Victor Forberger. "And they’re going to be denied in the future unless this law is overturned."
Last year the law blocked people like Jenny from Middleton from accessing unemployment benefits in the first weeks of the pandemic.
"In March and April, I felt stuck depressed, caught in a trap. I didn't know what to do," Jenny said. "I couldn't find another job at the point because jobs, were nowhere."
She was furloughed from her job, and her coworkers eventually were getting unemployment benefits. But because she collected Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Jenny was told she could not access unemployment in Wisconsin.
"Why can Wisconsin do that and the other states not?" Jenny said.
The class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday claims the state's law discriminates against disability recipients. Forberger as well as attorney Paul Kinne are among the attorneys who filed the suit.
"This class action lawsuit gives disabled workers in Wisconsin a chance at the justice they deserve to be treated daily like any other worker in our state," Kinne said.
The lawsuit asks the federal court to overturn Wisconsin's eligibility law regarding SSDI recipients. It also asks the court to force the state to pay SSDI recipients any unemployment benefits they could have accessed in the last 6 years, going back to when the law was first enacted.
"The goal here is to get people the unemployment benefits they’re due," Forberger said. "Going back to when this first started 6 years ago. Unemployment benefits are paid out of a tax that employers pay that goes into an unemployment trust fund. So, the money is already there."
More than a year later, Jenny has now retired, but if the suit is successful, she could access those benefits she was denied from last spring.
"We work just as much as anybody else we have a disability physical or mentally... it just is not really fair that somebody's willing and able to work like us gets penalized," she said.
Gov. Tony Evers proposed repealing the law in his budget earlier this year, but that proposal did not make the final spending plan.
We reached out to the governor's office about this lawsuit. They deferred our request for comment to the Department of Workforce Development.
We reached out to the DWD for comment, a spokesperson said the department is aware of the lawsuit.
We also asked Republican leadership about Tuesday's announcement. We are still awaiting a response and will update this story as soon as we hear back.
Editor's Note: The broadcast version of this story stated the attorneys said there were 150,000 SSDI recipients currently working in Wisconsin. They have since contacted TMJ4 to notify us they did not have the correct figure, and that 150,000 was the total number of residents eligible for SSDI benefits.