FITCHBURG (WKOW) — Dave Heide knows he’ll need more staff on the floor of Liliana’s in about a month; he’s reopening the dining room on June 15. Like other business owners across Wisconsin, he acknowledges it’s been much harder than before to get applicants for open jobs.
As a remedy to the problem, Republican leaders in the legislature on Tuesday announced they’ll be introducing a bill ending Wisconsin’s participation in four federal unemployment relief programs, including the extra $300 per week for residents getting unemployment pay.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said the total benefits package amounted to pay more lucrative than business owners could offer, even if they were making a good faith effort to pay a decent wage.
“If the government is the main competitor, ’cause don’t forget, on unemployment today, you are making $16.75/hour and not required to look for work,” Vos said. “Well if you can go work $14/hour, how many people are gonna make that choice?”
Vos and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) spoke at a press conference rolling out the bill; they were joined by a pair of business owners, David Kyhn, who owns Home Instead home care in Oconomowoc, and Ron Buholzer, whose family owns Klondike Cheese Company in Monroe.
Buholzer said the company still had 34 openings, which was causing long hours and extra stress for the workers who are on board.
“We just raised our starting wage across the board from $14 to $16 because when we went to $14 we still weren’t getting any applicants,” Buholzer said. “$16 has helped a little but very few applicants.”
Heide said he agreed some people were opting not to work when unemployment paid as much as it was but added he disagreed with what he felt was an “all or nothing” approach from lawmakers.
“One of the things they could do is they could continue the $300 stimulus for anyone who’s on unemployment right now and let them keep it for like three months or six months,” Heide said. “While they get back into their career path.”
Heide added other workers were choosing to stay home because the extra pay from unemployment made it easier to afford health insurance or alleviated child care concerns.
“I think it’s kind of crappy of anyone to try and ask someone to go back to work to make less than they’re making on unemployment,” Heide said. “And enough to figure out [without asking] ‘how do I do child care for my family?'”
Marklein said Republicans had discussed the idea of using additional money as an incentive to get people back into the workforce but felt in the end that sent a bad message to those who’ve already gone back to work.
“If you’re working for a small business today and somebody is paid by the government to come to work, and they end up making more than you, that isn’t fair,” Marklein said.
Labor experts do not entirely agree that extended or enhanced unemployment pay is the biggest disruptor of the U.S. labor market.
Still, 21 other states have stopped taking the additional unemployment money. However, they all have Republican governors and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is likely to veto the bill should it reach his desk.
Britt Cudaback, communications director for the governor’s office, said Republicans would do more to help Wisconsinites recover from the pandemic by investing in making health care more affordable, giving more money to public schools, and committing to more infrastructure projects as a jobs creator.
“If Republicans are interested in putting this pandemic behind us, they’ll stop playing politics with our economic recovery and pass the governor’s Badger Bounceback agenda,” Cudaback said in an email Tuesday.
In Wisconsin, the March unemployment rate was 3.8 percent and one of the 10 best rates in the country. Vos acknowledged that’s also part of the issue employers are facing but added that’s all the more reason for any able-bodied adult in the state to be working.
“Part of the challenge is that as our economy has been growing, the workforce has been changing,” Vos said. “We see older workers are retiring, younger workers are coming in and there are fewer of them.”
Republicans are not waiting to move ahead with reinstating the rule that people must be searching for a job in order to qualify for unemployment benefits. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules is scheduled to vote Wednesday on suspending the emergency rule that waived the job search requirement.
Vos said he does not think those work search rules are being enforced vigorously enough as in recent months his own popcorn business has dealt with people applying and then no-showing interviews or the first day of work; he said it’s something that’s come up in talks with other business owners too.
Vos said addressing that issue is more of a long-term goal for Republicans who, for now, hope to get the unemployment bill onto the Assembly floor next month.