By Bram Sable-Smith
Wisconsin Public Radio
Possibly hundreds of laid-off Wisconsin workers with disabilities can now obtain the sort of federal aid that other unemployed workers have been able to receive during the pandemic.
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development said this week it would begin offering Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — an offering under Congress’ disaster stimulus bill — to people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic who are also receiving federal disability benefits.
Those who qualify will receive payments of $163 to $370 each week — plus the additional $600 that the federal government has been adding to weekly unemployment checks during the pandemic. Although the extra $600 payments ended July 25, recipients will be able to retroactively receive the assistance back for unemployment that was caused by the pandemic as far back as early February.
The news should end four months of uncertainty for out-of-work Wisconsinites with disabilities. Much of that uncertainty was the result of a 2013 Wisconsin law that had led to the denial of assistance to laid-off workers who also rely on federal Social Security Disability Insurance. Following a WPR/Wisconsin Watch report about the denials, the DWD had asked the U.S. Department of Labor in June for permission to reverse course.
The federal agency granted its blessing in a letter dated July 27.
“If you lose work through no fault of your own, you should be eligible for Unemployment Insurance or its equivalent,” DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman said Monday in a press release urging qualifying workers to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, also known as PUA.
“With today’s news, our state’s residents who receive SSDI and are out of work due to COVID-19 now have an opportunity to receive partial wage replacement through PUA if they are otherwise eligible.”
About 175,000 working-age Wisconsinites rely on disability benefits to supplement their incomes, a vast majority of whom work. SSDI guidelines allow — and even encourage — part-time work for employees, provided they do not earn more than $1,260 a month. The federal program serves people who have worked and paid Social Security taxes but can no longer perform “substantially gainful activity.”
Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law in 2013 barring that group from receiving regular state unemployment insurance in addition to SSDI after losing work. Labor experts say North Carolina is the only state with a similar ban.
DWD staff cited that law in blocking SSDI recipients from receiving benefits under PUA — separate funds Congress earmarked for people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic but “would not qualify for regular unemployment compensation.”
Labor advocates argued SSDI recipients fit that definition, but the DWD initially said the state law from 2013, coupled with Congress’ lack of specificity on how to handle SSDI applicants, left the agency with no choice but to issue denials.
The department sought to reverse course in a letter sent to U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia.
DWD spokesman Ben Jedd said about 1,450 SSDI recipients had applied for PUA. The press release on Monday said the agency had denied PUA benefits to five people under the previous rules interpretation, and the rest of the applications were still pending.
“DWD will reprocess their (denied) claims and determine their eligibility based on the updated guidance,” the release said.
Victor Forberger, supervising attorney for the University of Wisconsin’s Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic, said he knew of many more denials.
“Maybe they’re just counting my clients,” he joked. Forberger previously told WPR and Wisconsin Watch that he had represented about 20 SSDI recipients who had sought unemployment aid.
Jedd said the five denials do not count people who were denied regular benefits because they had received SSDI but were not yet denied PUA. DWD requires PUA applicants to have first been denied regular benefits.
In a July 21 post on his personal blog, Forberger provided details of the disparate — and perplexing — outcomes for SSDI recipients applying for pandemic relief as the agency waded through a backlog of all types of claims that has left Wisconsinites waiting weeks and even months for aid.
The DWD approved one claimant, sent that person hundreds of dollars, and later denied the claim based upon the original interpretation of the rules, Forberger wrote.
“I had one person contact me yesterday. She got an approval letter for her PUA benefits and a denial letter all in the same envelope,” Forberger said in an interview Tuesday.
The mixed messaging also included a June 9 email from a DWD attorney who pushed Forberger to drop a different appeal of an SSDI client’s denied claim.
Regardless, Forberger called DWD’s reversal “good news.”
“People will start getting payments,” he said.
This story comes from a partnership between Wisconsin Watch and WPR.