State Unemployment Insurance Fund Reserves ‘No Longer in Dire Condition’ but Issues Remain

Wisconsin’s unemployment reserves averted catastrophe during the pandemic, but the state has work to do to ensure the fund can withstand job losses from a potential future recession.

That’s according to a new report released Tuesday by the Wisconsin Policy Forum. It examined how the state avoided increasing the tax burden on employers during the pandemic-induced recession to fund its unemployment system, and examined where Wisconsin’s unemployment reserves sat by the end of 2022.

While the state’s unemployment fund has increased since the pandemic cut it nearly in half, it still isn’t at pre-pandemic levels and only has enough money to cover about 6.5 months of unemployment benefits if it were to reach a historically high jobless rate, the report said. The federal government recommends states keep enough money on-hand to cover one year.

“The unemployment fund has dropped out of the headlines, and it is no longer getting the attention that it got in early 2020 — and that’s appropriate because things have improved and it’s no longer in dire condition,” said Jason Stein, research director for Wisconsin Policy Forum. “But there remain issues, and we shouldn’t have it dropped entirely off the radar.”

Unemployment Insurance benefits are funded by state and federal payroll taxes that are paid exclusively by employers, but can indirectly limit compensation for workers, the report says. Typically, employers responsible for a greater proportion of layoffs are required to pay more than those with fewer layoffs.

Wisconsin was not one of the 22 states that borrowed money from the federal government to make jobless payments during the pandemic. But that’s not to say the state’s unemployment reserves weren’t impacted by COVID-19. From 2019 to 2020, its end of year fund balance dropped from $2 billion to $1.1 billion, according to the report. It stayed at $1.1 billion in 2021.

Wisconsin’s unemployment reserves increased to end 2022 at $1.4 billion, still below 2019’s $2 billion, and below federal recommendations, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. Meeting the federal benchmark of being able to fund one year of benefits at historically high levels would qualify Wisconsin for interest-free federal loans if the state needed to borrow to fund the program.

The report lists some ways policymakers could help Wisconsin prepare for a possible recession including using the state’s nearly $7 billion budget surplus, reducing unemployment benefits in targeted ways or increasing revenues from state payroll taxes.

“None of these options are painless,” Stein said, noting that using the state’s one-time budget surplus could be less problematic than some of the other options.

“Putting some of it into the unemployment fund would be a one-time use of the funds,” he continued. “In that sense, it wouldn’t set up budget problems for the state in the future, and, in fact, it would do the opposite — it would make the state better prepared for the future.”