Guidance from the federal government may make Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) available for more Wisconsinites.
The U.S. Department of Labor issued a program letter to all state unemployment agencies in February clarifying who is eligible for PUA, benefits created by the CARES Act for those out of work because of the pandemic but not eligible for regular unemployment insurance.
The letter expanded the list of COVID-19 related eligibility reasons approved by the federal government to include:
- Individuals who refuse to return to work that is unsafe or accept an offer of new work that is unsafe.
- Certain individuals providing services to educational institutions or educational service agencies.
- Individuals experiencing a reduction of hours or a temporary or permanent layoff.
"Wisconsin was denying benefits and all those circumstances, and so this new program or that was issued ... completely up-ends hundreds if not thousands of cases that claim to have been denied benefits," said Labor Attorney Victor Forberger.
Forberger represents people who have been denied unemployment benefits, and are appealing to the state, including Daniel Major of Waukesha.
Major worked two jobs last year before the pandemic started. He lost his full-time job in April but continued working his second part-time job at reduced hours.
Major receives Social Security Disability Insurance and is not eligible for regular unemployment in Wisconsin. So he applied for PUA benefits but was denied.
"They also stated that because I was working part-time that I would not be eligible for the PUA assistance, because the full-time job had closed, but my part-time job also had reduced hours," Major said.
He's appealed the decision but is currently waiting as the state makes its way through a backlog of more than 15,000 hearings pending a date.
To make ends meet, he said he's taken out thousands of dollars in high-interest loans.
"It's unemployment or bust at this point," Major said.
"We have to figure out how we are going to go back and contact all of those individuals who may now be eligible for PUA benefits based on those new the three new reasons related to COVID," said Mark Reihl, the Unemployment Insurance Division administrator at the DWD.
Reihl says the department plans to notify everyone who may now be considered eligible for PUA benefits under the federal guidance, and allow them to reapply.
Reihl was unsure how long it would take for those who are now eligible to expect payments.
"All states are pretty much in the same situation about trying to determine how they're going to implement that, and so I wouldn't say we're behind others at this point," Reihl said.
Forberger believes it will take months for those previously denied cases to be processed.
"My guess is right now, at the end of the summer before it's implemented which then will mean people that got denied benefits will have their cases reopened a year and a half after they first needed pandemic benefits," Forberger said.
Meanwhile, people like Major are running out of time. He's working again but stil has to pay off the loans he took out to get by, and other expenses he's put off.
"I have car repairs that are needed immediately I have," Major said. "I'm faced with losing my job because I can't afford to support myself and pay off the existing bills that I have."
"If I lose any one of those things, everything is going to fall apart," he also said.