By Senator, Lena C. Taylor
Many people may not know that Wisconsin was the first state in the nation, in 1932, to offer unemployment benefits. Our legislative predecessors understood that workers needed help in between jobs, after a layoff or plant closing. Unemployment benefits, which help to pay rent and mortgages, buy groceries and put gas in the car to help find the next job, was also a way to keep local communities going and businesses open.
Although, it goes without question, there are people who attempt to game the system and collect unemployment benefits that they are not entitled to receive. There are penalties for knowingly making a false claim to obtain any unemployment insurance payment. Assembly Bill 710, which is moving through the legislature is designed to hang the Scarlet letter “F” around the necks of more Wisconsin residents.
Currently the penalty for filing a false unemployment claim is a fine of up to $500 or 90 days in jail, or both. Additionally, the law provides that each such false statement or representation constitutes a separate offense.
AB 710 increases the penalties significantly so that a person who knowingly makes a false claim to obtain any unemployment insurance is subject to a fine not to exceed $10,000 or up to 9 months in prison, or both if the value of the false claim was less than $2,500. Any false claim above $2,500 would make a person guilty of a either a Class I, H, or G felony depending on the amount of the fraudulent claim.
The problem I have with proposed bills like these is that, we are putting in place practices that may make it more difficult for people to ever find work again. We are saddling residents with felonies. Did anyone connected to the Wells Fargo scandal get a felony for opening over 2 million fraudulent accounts without customer’s knowledge?
Furthermore, I don’t know that we have sufficient data if any at all, that speaks to how many overpayments are made due to human error or a mistake. How many people could accidentally get caught up in the doorway to corrections because they misunderstood the process? Claimants trying to report that they were working have been told conflicting and confusing information about when they were supposed to report their new employment.
Most importantly, we can’t continue to create opportunities for people to obtain felonies in this state, particularly when we have also made it legal to discriminate against felons in certain hiring decisions. We have to figure out a way to address behaviors that don’t cripple our state in terms of future workforce, and that destroys families along the way. The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than other countries. Only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the U.S., but we are home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We should look for ways to be smarter on crime, understanding that enhanced penalties often do lifelong damage to residents.