Questions answered on the Lost Wage Assistance Program
How much will it be? When will I get it? Will I have to pay it back?
The Lost Wage Assistance (LWA) program supplements weekly unemployment benefits for qualified unemployment insurance recipients. President Trump unveiled the program in early August, a few weeks after an earlier unemployment supplement from Congress expired.
Gov. Tony Evers waited nearly three weeks to apply for the program, and Wisconsin was approved on Sept. 2.
Below is what we know about some of the biggest questions surrounding the program and how it will work in Wisconsin.
How much will the supplement be?
In Wisconsin, the LWA unemployment supplement will be $300, meaning for those that qualify for the program, they'll get $300 added to their weekly unemployment benefits. The $300 will be in addition to whatever amount someone receives in state-level benefits, which max out at $370 a week.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which funds the program, has said that states who applied by Sept. 10 can expect to receive funding for six weeks of the program (Wisconsin applied for the program Aug. 28 and was approved on Sept. 2). That means eligible Wisconsinites stand to receive $1,800 once benefits start flowing to recipients.
Why isn't Wisconsin getting $400?
After some early confusion when Trump announced the program in August, the Trump administration gave states two options: either get a $300 weekly supplement funded entirely by the federal government, or a $400 supplement where the federal government would pay for $300 and states would pay the other $100.
When Gov. Tony Evers applied for LWA in late August, he chose the first option that would provide a $300 supplement funded entirely by the federal government. Evers has not explicitly said why he opted for the $300 supplement, but many state governments, including Wisconsin, are facing budget challenges with declining tax revenues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the start of the pandemic, Evers has directed state agencies to cut state spending twice — once in April and again in July.
Who is eligible for the $300?
In order to qualify for the $300 supplement, an unemployment recipient has to meet two basic criteria: they have to be receiving at least $100 in weekly state-level unemployment benefits, and they have to certify that they are partially or completely unemployed because of disruptions related to COVID-19.
The supplement will be added to weekly benefits for eligible recipients who are currently receiving regular unemployment benefits; Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which provides benefits for those who don't typically qualify for unemployment like self-employed people and independent contractors; and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which provides an additional 13 weeks of benefits to those who have exhausted their regular benefits.
When asked why the Trump administration excluded those unemployment recipients receiving less than $100 in weekly benefits, the administration said the requirement was there to protect against fraud. Multiple unemployment insurance experts have said they don't understand that explanation.
Michele Evermore with the left-leaning National Employment Law Project previously said that it was particularly confusing because the requirement leaves out people receiving the least amount of unemployment benefits when fraudsters often impersonate people making the maximum benefit so that they can collect the most money.
Many experts pointed to the rushed way the program was put together as a possible explanation for the requirement.
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) estimates that 15,000 Wisconsinites would have been eligible to receive this extra money if not for that requirement. Experts have said that many of those individuals are tipped workers and among the poorest in the unemployment system.
Do I need to do anything to get the supplement?
There is no formal application for LWA the way there is with other unemployment programs. DWD will go through its system, and notify those who are eligible for the program based on LWA's program requirements.
Those who are eligible and would like to receive the money are, however, required to certify that they are partially or completely unemployed due to disruptions caused by COVID-19. Recipients must answer "yes" to that question to receive the supplement. For many, the yes or no question will come via DWD's online web portal.
Recipients who were prompted to answer this question in early to mid September were also asked to acknowledge that they may have to pay the money back if Congress passed another unemployment supplement that replaced LWA. The note confused many, and DWD said Sept. 14 it was removing the language from its website. You can find more details on this under the section "Will I Have To Pay It Back?"
When will I get the $300?
Former DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman estimated it will be early to mid-October before unemployment recipients begin receiving the $300 supplement. Frostman said the department needs four to five weeks to build the computer infrastructure for the program, a process known as "programming." He also said DWD needs about two weeks to test the program.
That will be a long wait for the tens of thousands of Wisconsinites eligible for the program. A previous $600 unemployment supplement from Congress ended in Wisconsin on July 25, and officially expired under federal law on July 31. If Frostman's time estimates are right, Wisconsin unemployment recipients will go more than two months with only state-level benefits, which max out at $370 a week.
Frostman blamed the delays on the agency's outdated computer system, which he said only allows DWD to set up one new program at a time on top of other logistical and technical hurdles.
How long will it last?
FEMA has told states to expect funding for six weeks of the supplement and no longer. In Wisconsin, that would mean recipients stand to receive as much as $1,800 under the program in total.
The comments from FEMA appeared to put to rest earlier concerns from unemployment insurance experts and advocates that, while Wisconsin slowly programmed LWA, the FEMA disaster relief fund where the LWA's funding is drawn from could be depleted.
Will I have to pay back the $300?
Some of those eligible for LWA have expressed concern about having to pay money received under the program back. That's because, for those who were prompted to certify whether they are partially or completely unemployed because of disruptions related to COVID-19 in early to mid-September, DWD was asking them to acknowledge that they may have to pay the money back "if another pandemic program is enacted by Congress to replace the Lost (Wage) Assistance program."
On Sept. 14, DWD told WPR via email it will not ask those receiving the $300 supplement to pay the money back unless "otherwise required by law or based on future guidance from the federal government." Separately, FEMA told DWD officials on Sept. 11 that federal guidance requesting the money be paid back is unlikely.
Payments under LWA will be backdated to Aug. 1. A DWD spokesperson said the note about possible repayment was added to account for the possibility that Congress could pass a separate unemployment insurance supplement that was also backdated to Aug. 1, creating duplicative benefits.
The agency said the language was included in an effort to be transparent with recipients about that possibility, and was reflective of the "uncertainty and confusion created by the federal government."
On Sept. 14, a spokesperson said DWD was removing the language from its website.
But, according to interviews with unemployment recipients and multiple posts in online support groups for those navigating the unemployment system in Wisconsin, some recipients may have answered "no" to the question in error, making them ineligible for the benefits, amid confusion about what the language meant and out of fear for having to repay the money at a time when money is already tight for many on unemployment.
A DWD spokesperson said Sept. 15 that the agency would reach out to those eligible for LWA in an attempt to catch those that may have mistakenly made themselves ineligible. The agency also said those who wish to change their answer can call DWD's help center and ask a staff member to change it for them.
What happens after six weeks?
According to FEMA, states including Wisconsin should not expect to receive more than six weeks of funding for the program. Once payments for the full six weeks have been made to recipients, it's unlikely that there will be other payments made under LWA.
If Congress has been unable to reach a deal on another supplement for unemployment recipients by that time, recipients would begin receiving just their state-level benefits again, as they did when the $600 supplement from Congress expired.
As of Sept. 18, Congress has remained at an impasse over a second round of stimulus spending, including enhanced unemployment benefits.
Editor's Note: This story will be continuously updated as developments related to the Lost Wage Assistance program occur.
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