MADISON — In a single month, due to a single virus and associated government-mandated shutdowns, Wisconsin's unemployment rate has more than quadrupled from a historic low to a historic high.
The state Department of Workforce Development on Wednesday reported that Wisconsin lost 385,900 private-sector jobs from March to April, and the unemployment rate shot up from 3.1% to 14.1%.
"Today's report shows the significant impact that the COVID-19 global pandemic has had on the Wisconsin economy, and underscores the importance of rationally and safely reopening our state," DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman said in a statement. "A strategy based on science that reduces the likelihood of additional outbreaks and further economic instability is the only way to get Wisconsin back on the path of historically low unemployment rates that the state was experiencing prior to COVID-19."
Wisconsin is still doing slightly better than the nation as a whole. The national unemployment rate is 14.7%, while its labor participation rate, 60.2%, is 6.4 percentage points lower than Wisconsin's.
Data from DWD show that in the three-week period from April 26 and May 16, the total number of initial claims for unemployment dropped from 39,278 to 31,851 a week, with the agency seeing anywhere between about 1,200 and 9,800 initial claims per day.
Claims to continue getting unemployment benefits were about flat during the same period, though, at between about 334,000 and 338,000 per week.
The data suggest that while a historic number of people continue to lose their jobs, that number is slowly declining. At the same time, those who had already been out of work weren't finding jobs to go back to.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' administration's "safer at home" order was struck down, effective immediately, on May 14, after which daily claims to continue benefits started to slowly taper off, according to the data that goes through May 19.
Earlier this week, DWD reported that of approximately 2.1 weekly claims received between March 15 and May 16, 1.4 million have been paid, amounting to about $1.4 billion, including additional federal benefits, sent to the state's out-of-work. Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation make up about $726 million of what's been distributed.
Wisconsin's unemployed have complained of benefits that takes weeks to arrive and the near-impossibility of getting through to DWD over clogged phone lines.
In a statement before Thursday's jobs numbers release, the co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, John Nygren, R-Marinette, laid the blame at the feet of the Evers administration.
“Governor Evers, the buck stops with you," Nygren said. "DWD needs to spend more time working to find ways to speed up the claims process and less time making excuses for their inability to effectively process unemployment claims. We have constituents that have been waiting over 60 days for benefits. Enough is enough. We need more action and less time passing blame.
DWD said that regular unemployment benefits are taking 17 days, on average, to reach applicants from the time they first apply. It did not have data on how quickly it's turning around claims under a separate federal program for gig workers, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA.
It also could not say how long people are waiting to get through by phone to an DWD operator when they have questions, but said it's planning to increase staffing to 500 by mid-June.
Nearly 550,000 people applied for unemployment between March 15 and May 16, and 81,286 made claims for PUA.
This story will be updated.
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