Updated on Friday at 11:32 a.m. CT
Wisconsin's unemployment rate dropped to 8.5% in June — a bit of good news that came Thursday as Democratic lawmakers released proposals to remove obstacles and broaden access to unemployment benefits.
The jobless numbers also came as Gov. Tony Evers' administration temporarily reassigned 100 state workers to help address a backlog in claims.
Wisconsin's unemployment rate last month was far below the national rate of 11.1% and was down from the state's high of 13.6% in April. That figure reflected the height of businesses closing across the state in response to a “safer at home” order issued by Evers to slow the spread of the virus. Wisconsin's unemployment rate was 12.1% in May.
While April’s unemployment rate had not been that high since the Great Depression, June’s 8.5% was last seen 10 years ago as Wisconsin was climbing out of the Great Recession. Unemployment then topped out just shy of 10%.
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate typically trends closely with the national rate. But there's a bigger gap now because the state has less of a concentration of jobs in sectors that were hardest hit by the pandemic, said the state's chief economist, Dennis Winters. For example, manufacturing and construction jobs in Wisconsin were less affected, helping to reduce the number of unemployed, he said.
“Another month of strong job growth and a declining unemployment rate tells us that more Wisconsinites are getting back to work, driving our economic growth,” said Department of Workforce Secretary Caleb Frostman. “The road to full economic recovery will be long and challenging, but the continued month-over-month progress is encouraging for Wisconsin’s workers and employers.”
The report shows that Wisconsin added 99,300 private sector jobs in June.
Winters said industries hardest hit earlier in the pandemic, such as leisure and hospitality, were the ones driving the recovery as businesses began to reopen.
"Those are the industries that took very large hits coming in the early spring. So, while they were down 50%, they've seen some nice recoveries in the number of jobs. But leisure and hospitality are still down 30%, and entertainment is still down almost 46% year over year," he said.
Winters was cautious about saying there's a connection between the jobless rate going down, and the Wisconsin COVID-19 numbers generally going up in recent weeks. "Just the general correlation, that is more a factor of the economy opening up, and people frequenting businesses, and the callback of employees to serve those customers," he said.
Winters said the local unemployment numbers won't be released until next week. So, it's hard to say now if the jobs recovery is going on all across the state.
While more people are getting back to work, the state is still struggling to process claims for those who have lost their jobs and are waiting for their benefits. Currently about 141,000 people were awaiting payments, a backlog that Republicans who control the Legislature have loudly criticized.
Wisconsin has had a spike in COVID-19 cases over the past month, breaking its records for newly confirmed cases in four of the past seven days.
Democratic lawmakers on Thursday introduced a package of bills they said would remove hurdles to getting the benefits. Republicans have proposed tapping federal funding to pay benefits while people await verification that they qualify. Evers dismissed that idea Monday as a “political stunt.”
The Democratic bills would, among other things, lower the work search requirement necessary from four to two per week in order to receive benefits. The bills would also allow people with disabilities who are able to work to be eligible to receive unemployment. The bills would further expand the authority of the Department of Workforce Development to increase access to unemployment benefits when appropriate.
Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke responded to the proposals, saying that “Democrats are feeling the heat of Tony Evers’ failures.”
“The Evers’ administration’s response to this unemployment crisis has been nothing short of a dumpster fire," Steineke said in a statement. "The tired proposals trotted out today would only serve to expand eligibility to an already strained system and fuel the flames of the problem at hand.”
Steineke said the proposals would do nothing to address problems at the department and would only expand the number of people eligible for benefits.
Evers' administration on Thursday said it was reassigning 100 state workers to help with the processing of claims. It said the reassignments average six weeks. Combining transfers, new hires and contracted vendors, the Department of Workforce Development has more than tripled the number of workers who are processing unemployment claims from 500 to 1,800, Evers' administration said.