MADISON — The city of Madison is no stranger to using special federal unemployment funds to help fill its budget holes. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s athletic department has done the same, as have other local governments, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
As Empower Wisconsin reported this week, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has asked city employees to take partial layoffs through the state’s Work-Share program. They could then collect unemployment that is 100 percent paid for through federal tax dollars as part of extended COVID -19 relief.
The benefits “in most cases, make up for the reduced payroll hours,” a city document states. In some cases, city employees will earn more than they’re currently making, thanks to the $300 per week federal supplement that runs from March 14.
Rhodes-Conway has made it clear the federal windfall would help the big-spending city out of a fiscal bind.
“After discussions with employee associations, the Mayor directed all eligible agencies to use Work-Share to help fill the projected $1.2M City of Madison budget gap,” a city document states.
This is at least the second time over the course of the pandemic the liberal city has gamed the system.
Facing a $30 million budget shortfall in late May, the city sought approval from Gov. Tony Evers’ state Department of Workforce Development to join the Work-Share program.
As the Wisconsin State Journal reported at the time, the program “lets employers cut workers’ hours and have the federal government pick up the tab for their lost income with money allocated through the $2 trillion CARES Act relief package.”
Under the program at that time, Madison city employees working reduced hours would have been eligible for $600 weekly bonus payments, with their regular unemployment benefits.
State law doesn’t exclude government employees from Work-Share programs or from the special federal funding that comes with them. But the statutes also don’t say anything about local government’s laying off public employees and using taxpayer-funded unemployment benefits to fill budget holes.
“The political far left have become experts in finding ways to siphon taxpayer dollars in any way possible. It’s not surprising that Madison led the way in finding innovative ways to do so particularly given its self-imposed shutdowns. Madison government is seeking to shelter itself from the pain that it has inflicted on so many of its taxpayers,” said state Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), chairman of the Senate Committee on Local Government, Small Business, Tourism and Workforce Development.
Jacque said Rhodes-Conway is telling city employees “to work less, get government assistance and call that a win-win.”
The city of Madison isn’t alone on that score.
Last year, the University of Wisconsin athletic department sought state approval for about 350 employees to participate in the Work-Share program. It was slated to run from May 18 through July 25. The department was looking to save approximately $2.8 million as the pandemic closed off a big source of revenue for the big budget UW Badgers sports programs.
“Reducing compensation and work hours is obviously not something I want to see for any of our Badger Athletics family,” UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said in a news release at the time. The UW statement said the program could offset all lost income.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau tells Wisconsin Spotlight there are other local and state government agencies using the program and special funding. It’s difficult to say how many. The Department of Workforce Development does not include the information on its website. When asked how many government participants there are, a DWD official cited confidentiality restrictions.
“Confidentiality provisions in state and federal unemployment insurance law preclude us from discussing details of UI claims or employer accounts with 3rd parties without written permission from the employer/claimant,” the official said in an email to Wisconsin Spotlight.
Meanwhile, thousands of laid-off private sector employees wait for their unemployment checks from a state agency that has massively failed to deliver — as governments use available federal Unemployment Insurance funds to bail out their bad budgets.
“I think we have to be concerned any time government is looking at rewarding public employees with raises through what is supposed to be a safety net program while the average citizen suffers,” Jacque said.