Ken Lonnquist
Op Ed

State Law Punishes People With Disabilities

Vos-Walker law means disabled people who lose their job can’t get unemployment benefits.

By - Jul 22nd, 2020 01:54 pm
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and former governor Scott Walker.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and former governor Scott Walker.

For the past forty years, I’ve made my living traveling Wisconsin as a singer-songwriter. During that time, I was never “unemployed” — until March, when COVID-19 put an end to live performances.

One thing that’s kept me going is the small monthly stipend I get from Social Security Disability Insurance. I began receiving SSDI a few years back after I became legally blind and unable to drive as a result of Type 1 diabetes. It helps with transportation and vision-aids, which has allowed me to continue to travel, write, perform and record.

But the program that has helped me stay afloat now threatens to sink me financially — along with many of the other 160,000 Wisconsin workers with disabilities who receive SSDI.

After the pandemic struck, I watched my savings account dwindle as I anxiously awaited Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds from the state Department of Workforce Development. These are $600 weekly payments for 16 weeks to workers who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

After a long, stressful wait, I received notice from DWD that I was “denied.”

In 2013, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed and Gov. Scott Walker signed a law that bars workers who receive SSDI from also collecting unemployment benefits. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called this “double dipping” that “may constitute fraud.”

The SSDI payments are meant to keep people working, not substitute for employment income. They merely “prime the pump” so disabled workers can continue to draw water. SSDI benefits fall far short of what’s necessary for shelter, food, medical expenses and taxes.

Those of us now being denied unemployment benefits have paid into the unemployment compensation program the same as other workers. The money we are being denied is our money. We’re hurting. We need help. But the Republicans in the state Legislature don’t care.

“Democrats simply want to make it easier to stay on unemployment and cheat the system,” Vos claimed in a statement aired on WKOW’s “Capital City Sunday” on July 19, regarding a package of bills Democrats are now circulating, including one to let SSDI recipients collect unemployment.

Former Gov. Walker also appeared on the program to insist that denying unemployment to SSDI recipients is “not because of policies in the past” but because DWD has “such an incredible backlog.”

The DWD website cites the law Walker signed as its basis for denying unemployment benefits to recipients of SSDI.

These statements from Vos and Walker demonstrate ignorance, indifference, and even cruelty toward disabled Wisconsin workers. COVID-19 threw millions of people out of work, but it’s the Wisconsin Legislature that is throwing the disabled to the wolves.

Dealing with COVID-19 is hard enough for people with disabilities. Why deny disabled residents who lose their jobs the pandemic assistance that other workers are receiving? Why deny the Wisconsin economy the significant cash infusion this would bring?

Since mid-March, I’ve done a Facebook Live half-hour show for kids and families every weekday morning. It helps keep me in practice, entertains folks of all ages, and offers a resource to teachers seeking topics and themes for virtual study-units.

It gives me a little semblance of normalcy, and makes me feel like I’m doing something positive as we all endure this pandemic.

Our Legislature needs to do something positive, too.

Ken Lonnquist is an award-winning singer-songwriter who lives in Madison. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine.

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Categories: Health, Op-Ed, Politics

One thought on “Op Ed: State Law Punishes People With Disabilities”

  1. Wardt01 says:

    Wisconsin Employees do NOT pay into an “unemployment compensation program” as mentioned in this op-ed.

    Unemployment insurance is 100% paid for by Employers.

    To clarify:
    Wisconsin employers pay “unemployment taxes” each quarter to the state of Wisconsin. The $ amount your employer pays each quarter is based on a percentage of their payroll. The state of Wisconsin holds this money in a reserve account for each employer, and then the state takes $ out of the employer’s reserve account to pay unemployment insurance benefits to any ex-employee that specific employer lays off.

    Self employed people in Wisconsin do NOT pay into the unemployment system, they do not make any payments to a reserve account, and therefore they can’t collect any unemployment insurance benefits.

    Wisconsin employers also pay an additional “unemployment tax” to the federal government each year. This $ goes into a general fund to cover costs associated with the overall unemployment program. An employer pays approx $420 each year per employee.

    The current extra $600 unemployment insurance benefit is 100% being paid directly by the federal government. Congress is borrowing the $, and therefore everybody will eventually be “paying” for this via their annual income taxes paid to the IRS.

    The SSDI (disability insurance) program provides a monthly cash benefit to individuals who are disabled or blind. It specifically exists to replace your income if you become disabled and are unable to work.

    SSDI payments are paid from a Social Security Trust Fund that every employee (including self employed people) in America pays into each paycheck. (the FICA taxes withheld from your paycheck)

    In the past, a person couldn’t collect disability AND work. However approx 20 years ago the rules were changed to allow people collecting disability to ALSO work to earn income.

    For 2020, if you are collecting SSDI, the government allows you to also have a job/ earn a maximum of approx. $1200 / month. If you’re blind, you can earn approx. $2100 / month.

    With all that being said…. collecting $600×4 weeks of extra unemployment right now would be over these $1200/$2100 limits.

    I hope this explanation helps clarify the issue being discussed in the op-ed.

    I am supportive of helping everyone get through this financial mess right now, however a person collecting full disability PLUS $2400 /month of the emergency unemployment may be taking $ from others that also need help.

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