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Seasonal-unemployment changes hurting businesses, communities

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach is a Democrat from Middleton.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach is a Democrat from Middleton.

By state Sen. Jon Erpenbach

One thing you can always count on in Wisconsin is winter weather. Winter will come and with it will come a time when, for some businesses and employees at least, work cannot proceed simply because it’s too cold outside.

Recognizing that seasonal unemployment is different from getting fired from a job, Wisconsin law has allowed businesses to place a “winter hold” on their employees when the weather makes working impossible.

This hold means not only that businesses can keep the people that they have trained but also that employees don’t have to take a job they don’t need just because they are required to either start working or face the loss of their unemployment insurance. My colleagues and I are now proposing a solution that I hope will receive the overwhelming support of the state Legislature.

This issue came to my office through a listening session and played out in the real world a bit differently than I would have expected. One of my constituents, from New Glarus, works in outdoor construction and thus is seasonally unemployed ever year. To keep busy and help his community, he puts in more volunteer time during winter with the local fire and rescue team, which is an all-volunteer force. This gives a break to everyone else who puts their lives on hold to save the lives of their neighbors. And it turns out he is not alone.

Finding people willing to get up in the middle of the night to pull a neighbor from a burning house, or a car accident, or suffering from a stroke is becoming more and more difficult. The incentives for volunteer fire departments are just not there, and with an aging rural population, this is truly turning into an emergency. Last summer, a Legislative Council Study committee worked to respond to this situation by proposing a set of bills to help rural Wisconsin. I will support each and every one of them, and I hope my colleagues will, too. But missing from that list, unfortunately, is this bill.

This issue is not just about volunteer emergency crews in rural Wisconsin. It is also about each and every business in rural and urban Wisconsin that wants to keep the employees they have trained and invested in. The change to prohibit a “winter hold” on employees was not made by the Legislature; it was made by the Department of Workforce Development and Gov. Scott Walker’s administration. Ever since this rule was changed  in 2015, we have heard from businesses and employers about how bad it is for business in Wisconsin.

Despite our calls for modification and our outrage at the state’s unemployment advisory council for recommending the current rule, the administration has not responded. That means we will have to try a law change again this year. I am hopeful other legislators who represent rural areas step up and cross party lines to support their local businesses and communities.. Contact your state legislators and ask them to support allowing a “winter hold” on employees to help your community and the businesses that keep it working.

For more information on seasonal unemployment changes and what they have meant for businesses, employees and emergency medical services contact my office at 608-266-6670 or 888-549-0027 or sen.erpenbach@legis.wi.gov

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