Unemployment Benefits Protect Seasonal Workers
The Wisconsin state legislature wants to slash unemployment benefits. Seasonal workers rely on that money as job opportunities fluctuate throughout the year.
This article is part of The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.
Troy Brewer was pleased when the Milwaukee Bucks made the playoffs this year, and not just because he’s a big fan of the basketball team.
Brewer works as a cook in Fiserv Forum, the arena where the Bucks play. He’s been there since the arena opened in 2018, and helped start a union there in the same year, the Fiserv Forum and Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH). The union’s contract ensures that Brewer and his coworkers make at least a $15 wage, and because of Brewer’s seniority, he’s at the top of the list whenever there’s work.
But after the playoffs, the work schedule gets a little light.
“I’m most definitely worried,” Brewer said. “Recently, we have emails saying we don’t have a schedule set for July, like there might not be any work.”
The backup for Brewer and workers like him, who work in fields that haven’t fully returned from the pandemic, is unemployment insurance.
Back in March of 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which in addition to other relief measures, supplemented the state’s unemployment benefits by $600 a week, a number which was halved in January. In March 2021, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which continued the $300 supplement, set to expire on September 6. Since then, 25 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, have announced their intention to stop accepting the federal subsidy.
In Wisconsin, the legislature has voted to reinstate work search requirements for people receiving unemployment insurance, and declined Governor Evers’ proposal to add $15 million to the state’s unemployment system, as well as a proposal to add $28 million to worker training programs. Meanwhile, Republicans in the legislature have made moves to eliminate the $300 supplement from the federal government for UI.
Governor Tony Evers has questioned the logic that ending additional unemployment insurance would solve the labor shortage problem in the state, which predates the pandemic. “We had trouble finding people to come to work before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and after the pandemic,” he told the press on June 1. “I just feel confident that the people that are receiving unemployment compensation with an unemployment rate now that is similar to before the pandemic, need those resources to live on,” he said.
But so far, the Governor hasn’t stated definitively that he would veto the Republican measure. “I will take a look at it,” he said when asked whether he would veto the bill.
Brewer, who has two kids at home, says that he needs that extra boost. He just found out that his landlord is selling his house, so on top of everything, he has to find a new place to live. “It’s a good thing we do still get unemployment to help us stand a little better than what we usually would.”
Lauren Stevens, another worker at the arena, feels a similar anxiety. Stevens is a retired educator, and has used her job doing concessions to make ends meet. The basketball season starts up again in the fall, so after the Bucks’ playoff run, there won’t be work again until the new season. Stevens and other workers will be able to use unemployment benefits until then, but only if the legislature doesn’t cut off the federal supplement.
“I’m concerned — reason being I’m retired, on social security and this is a part time position for myself,” Stevens said. “I’m a little concerned with this gap.”
Much of the discourse around getting rid of unemployment insurance centers around the notion that the benefit discourages people from returning to work. That conclusion isn’t born out in research on the subject, though. In “A Short Review of Recent Evidence on the Disincentive Effects of Unemployment Insurance and New Evidence from New York State, University of Chicago professors, who studied an increase in unemployment insurance in New York, found only a slight propensity for people on UI to continue benefits when they increased.
More recently, a study by a group of Yale economists found that there was no evidence that the $600 a week benefit provided by the CARES Act disincentivized people from returning to work.
“Unemployment rates in Wisconsin don’t support the overdrawn and quite dramatic, self serving conclusion that there are a bunch of people sitting on the sidelines who are ready to go to go to work in otherwise low wage, no benefit, insecure, crappy jobs if $300 a week, supplemental unemployment benefits were eliminated,” said Peter Rickman, president of MASH. At the same time, Rickman sees the current economic landscape as an opportunity for workers. “The way the labor market is constructed right now is such that the balance of power instead of being wholly and entirely in favor of the boss class, has had a slight tipping towards the working class,” he said.
Senator Melissa Agard (D-16th District) argues that cutting UI won’t put people back to work as much as it would harm struggling families. “It’s really unfortunate that my Republican colleagues in Wisconsin are continuing down the same path that they were on pre-pandemic: making it harder for people to be able to get ahead and take care of themselves and their families,” Agard told In These Times. “Folks are having a hard time finding people for jobs primarily because they’re not paying people a living wage, or respectable wage to do those jobs.”
Agard feels concerned the pandemic has only exacerbated the wealth gap that was in place before COVID-19 hit. “In my opinion, we should be learning about how it is that supporting people actually provides them with a step up for themselves and their families in our future,” she said.
For Debbie Steidl, who normally does stagehand work for touring Broadway shows at the Marcus Performing Art Center (PAC) in Milwaukee, the end of the expanded unemployment benefits won’t necessarily spell financial doom. That’s in part because years in the business as a union member, and support from family and friends, left her in a good position to make it through the pandemic year.
In addition to other theater work, Steidl, who is a member of IATSE Local 18, had been in show business for 35 years when theaters across the country closed down due to the pandemic, bringing her work to a screeching halt in March 2020.
“I just reached the point on my seniority level where I have steady income, where I can actually plan things and all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from under me,” Steidl recalled. “I was very angry.”
Fortunately, the PAC had just put on a showing of The Lion King, so she lived off the income she made from that last show before hunkering down.
Since the shutdown, Steidl has gone to work for a few events, such as the Democratic National Convention. “There were little bits here and there, jobs not enough to support myself, but enough to keep me interested in my job,” she said. When not taking short-term gigs when they come, Steidl has taken unemployment, but she feels optimistic about her financial situation as theater begins to come back later this season.
“Some of the riggers and foreman of the Union are already going into the Summerfest grounds,” Steidl said. “We just had a union meeting a couple days ago, and they said that things are going to start looking up, like towards the end of July and August. So we’re being hopeful.”
On June 9, the Wisconsin legislature voted to end contracts for federal employment benefits beginning the earliest week the measure is passed. That depends on Evers signing the bill.
As for Brewer, he has hope, but the crisis is not over. “It’s hard times out here right now, especially for the people in our work,” he said.
Sheila Regan is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She has
covered news for the Guardian, the Washington Post, and Salon, as well
as the Sahan Journal, The Uptake, and other publications. She also
writes about the arts.