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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher March 4, 2013

Two-thirds collecting unemployment don't have to look for jobs, Scott Walker says

When Gov. Scott Walker preached about the need to reform government assistance programs on Feb. 13, 2013, his congregation was a "business day" gathering in Madison.

But one could imagine the minister's son giving the same speech at a town hall gathering in Iowa, stumping for the 2016 presidential nomination -- a possibility raised a number of times since the 2012 presidential election.

In his 37-minute "dependence to independence"presentation, which was accompanied by a slide show, Walker rejected a federal proposal to expand Medicaid and called for requiring able-bodied, childless adults who receive food stamps to get job training.

Then the Republican governor turned to unemployment benefits.

People receiving unemployment checks should be required to look for a job four times a week instead of two, Walker said, adding "we want to make sure you’re out hustling each and every week as much as reasonably as possible to go out and find that job. We’re going to give you the skills and the backing and the opportunity to do that, but you’ve got to work to make that happen as well. I don’t think that’s an unrealistic expectation."

Although Walker didn’t state it in his speech, he claimed in one of his slides that two-thirds of unemployment insurance recipients in Wisconsin "are not required to search for work due to current work search exemptions."

That seems like a big number. Is he right? Is there more to the story?

Unemployment picture

Employment has been a contentious issue since Walker took office in January 2011. As our Walk-O-Meter shows, the governor is far off the pace for meeting his signature campaign promise of creating 250,000 private-sector jobs during his four-year term. At the same time, he emphasizes that the state's unemployment rate has been lower than the national rate and has generally declined during his tenure.

In January 2013, Walker proposed tightening the standards for receiving jobless benefits, a move that would have to be approved by the Legislature.

Wisconsinites seeking unemployment benefits must file a claim each week they are out of work. Depending on what their previous wages were, their unemployment benefits are between $54 and $363 per week.

When filing the weekly claims, the recipients are asked a number of questions, including:

Were you able to work full-time and available for full-time work?


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Did you contact at least two employers during the week to try to find work?

Recipients could lose their benefits if they don’t contact at least two employers "who hire people with your skills or might have other work you can do."

However, state regulations waive the work search requirement under a number of circumstances.

According to Walker’s Department of Workforce Development:

"You may be told that you do not have to look for work if you are definitely returning to full-time work for a recent employer or if you are a member (in good standing) of a trade union that operates a hiring hall or referral system and has signed an agreement with the department. In some cases, you will not have to look for work if you are working part-time."

Walker’s evidence

John Dipko, a spokesman for the Department of Workforce Development, told us that Walker’s claim is based on calculations by the department.

The department estimated that 60,167 people filed an initial claim for unemployment benefits in January 2013 and were paid benefits. In other words, they were filing for the first time since becoming unemployed; that’s when the determination is made on whether they must look for work.

Two-thirds of those people -- 40,119 -- were not required to look for work, the department determined.

We asked for figures covering a longer period of time and were given statistics indicating that in 2012, an even larger proportion of unemployment compensation recipients -- 68 percent -- were not required to work.

We ran the numbers by Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project, which says it promotes "help unemployed workers regain their economic footing through improved benefits and services." He didn’t quarrel with the accuracy of the claim that two-thirds of the recipients don’t have to look for work.

But Emsellem said it would be counterproductive, both for employers and employees, to require laid-off employees to look for new jobs if they are likely to soon return to their old job, or similar work. Those people are not likely to find better jobs -- or temporary ones -- simply by making "cold calls" to other employers, he said.

Getting back to the most recent figures that Walker relied on, for January 2013, here’s a breakdown from the Department of Workforce Development of the 40,119 people who filed new claims for unemployment insurance who were not required to look for work:

Laid off, expected to return to job within 12 weeks 29,636
Now working part-time for same employer 5,940
Laid off, but routinely obtains work through union hiring hall 3,837
Enrolled in job training program 442
Expected to start job with new employer within four weeks 258
Other 6
Total 40,119
So, it’s not as though the people exempted from work search are being allowed to idly collect handouts. The vast majority who aren’t required to look for jobs expect to be working again in the relatively near future, either at their same job or for a new employer.

Our rating

Walker said two-thirds of Wisconsinites receiving unemployment checks "are not required to search for work due to current work search exemptions."

The statement is accurate, but needs additional information -- namely that the vast majority of unemployment insurance recipients who aren’t required to look for work are expected to be working again relatively soon, many at the same jobs they were laid off from.

We rate Walker’s statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

Wisconsin Eye, video of Gov. Scott Walker (speech starts at 5:50; unemployment at 30:00), Feb. 13, 2013

Gov. Scott Walker, slide show accompanying speech, Feb. 13, 2013

Interview, National Employment Law Project policy co-director Maurice Emsellem, Feb. 27 and March 1, 2013

Email interview, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development communications director John Dipko, Feb. 18 and March 1, 2013

Email interview, Gov. Scott Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie, Feb. 14, 2013

Email interview, Legal Action of Wisconsin attorney Robert Andersen, Feb. 27, 2013

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, "Unemployment insurance -- work search"

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, work search requirements and exemptions

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, 2012 work search statistics


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Two-thirds collecting unemployment don't have to look for jobs, Scott Walker says

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