By Sen. Janet Bewley
Although we might not have a lot of snow on the ground, it is that time of year again.
Like many of you, I recently went out and cut a Christmas tree. For many people in the southern part of the state, that is the closest they’ll come to a firsthand experience of Wisconsin’s Forestry Industry. Forestry is the No. 1 employer in Iron and Price counties and one of the 10 largest employers in Ashland, Barron, Sawyer, and Washburn counties.
Forest-product industries account for well over 10 percent of manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin. For every 10 jobs in forest-related industries, there are 23 jobs created in other sectors of the economy, like printing and paper. The health of our forests is vital.
And that includes the health of the businesses and individuals involved in growing, harvesting and transporting the lumber. Unfortunately, a vital tool that employers and small businesses in our area have used to keep seasonal workers was recently changed by the Walker Administration.
Seasonal employers across Wisconsin have long been able to rely on retaining workers after seasonal layoffs. I’ve heard from many owners of seasonal businesses who willingly pay into the state’s unemployment fund at a higher rate knowing that it helps them keep experienced, talented workers.
The new rule requires workers to seek, and potentially take, a different job despite the fact that their employers plan to rehire them. Businesses owners who depend on their skilled work force are worried they will lose these excellent employees after just 8 weeks.
I’ve been contacted by the owner of a small hotel, the manager of a golf course, a small family-owned construction firm and a forester, all of them worried sick that they will lose long-term, trusted employees – employees that are vital to the continued success of their businesses.
I’ve drafted a proposal I hope can be a starting point to dealing with this problem. It would recognize the seasonal nature of many of Wisconsin’s industries and allow businesses to keep quality workers.
I will be presenting my bill to the non-partisan council that oversees Wisconsin’s Unemployment Insurance Program. I’m hopeful they will move quickly to deal with this problem.
Unfortunately, this rule change was not the only Grinch-like change to unemployment insurance that is taking effect this season. The Walker administration is finishing up plans to eliminate the toll-free phone number that unemployed workers use to file for unemployment insurance.
Wisconsin continues to trail the country and our neighbors in private-sector job growth and this change does nothing to improve the state’s economy. I can’t understand why, especially in this season, the administration wants to increase the burden on workers between jobs.
One of the most important differences between the steep recession that took hold in 2008 and 2009 and the Great Depression was the unemployment insurance that kept many families afloat and supported local businesses that rely on these customers. We should be building on what’s been proved to work for employers and their workforce in Wisconsin, especially here in the north.
As we decorate our Christmas tree or drive to visit family, let’s all take a minute this holiday season to think about how blessed we are to call the North Woods home. And maybe say a prayer that our neighbors and friends employed in seasonal occupations make it through to next spring.
State Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, represents Wisconsin’s 25th Senate District