News of the Day

Wisconsin Unemployment System Making Strides Toward Modernization

The leader of Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development said Monday there’s been “fantastic progress” in its efforts to modernize the state’s unemployment insurance system.

Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek, in an appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show,” said the department is paying 84 percent of unemployment claims within one to three days.

DWD struggled in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic shutdown of March 2020 and the influx of claims that resulted placed a strain on the unemployment system, creating a backlog of hundreds of thousands of claims. Some potential applicants weren’t able to connect to the department’s call center to complete the process.

As of June 2020, unemployment applicants waited 19 days on average for their claims to be paid, according to DWD data. Some applicants reported much longer waits, however.

We have inherited a system that is over 50 years old,” Pechacek said. “When I walked in the door, I was surprised to learn that when folks had to send in documentation to support their unemployment claim, they had to either fax it or mail it.”

Since then, the department has made changes so applicants can upload those documents online.

“We’ve got artificial intelligence on the backend that pulls that data right off, so it’s very efficient,” Pechacek said.

According to the most recent department statistics, 91 percent of initial applications for unemployment benefits have been filed online. That number jumps to 95 percent for weekly claims.

Pechacek said the department increased project appointment and contractor hiring during the pandemic, especially in adding judges to address claim appeals. According to department data, more than 700 appeals were waiting to be scheduled as of the end of April. That’s down from almost 13,000 appeals a year ago.

 

Tourism Spending in Wisconsin Outperforms National Average

Tourism spending in Wisconsin has outperformed the national average for the past two years in comparison to 2019 numbers, state officials announced.

A release from Gov. Tony Evers spotlighted figures from the Travel Recovery Insights report released by the U.S. Travel Association and Tourism Economics. It shows travel spending in the state in February was 1 percent lower than in 2019, while the national average was 6 percent lower.

The release also notes Wisconsin in February “fared better than tourism powerhouses” such as Texas, Michigan, North Carolina, Hawaii, California, Minnesota, Illinois and New York, each of which were down between 4 and 18 percent compared to the same month in 2019.

A graph included in the release shows tourism spending in the state has largely followed the national trend, with a sharp dip in early 2020 coinciding with the start of the pandemic. Travel spending in the state has remained below 2019 numbers for much of 2020 and 2021, and exceeded 2019 for the first time in September of last year.

Over the six-month period ending in February, travel spending in the state exceeded 2019 levels four times, the release shows. It was up 1 percent in September, down 4 percent in October, up 1 percent in November, up 4 percent in December, up 1 percent in January and down 1 percent in February.

Overall economic impact data for 2021 won’t be available until June, the release shows, but the state’s tourism industry in 2020 saw $17.3 billion in business sales and supported more than 157,000 jobs. In 2019, those numbers were $22.2 billion and 202,000 jobs, according to figures provided by Travel Wisconsin.

The Stats are Alarming: Congress Must Act to Curb Retail Crime

The groundswell of organized retail crime is a national issue that risks spreading local law enforcement thin. While the American public sees headlines of smash-and-grab robberies or watches shock-inducing footage of their favorite retailers left ransacked and wrecked, it’s our local police forces that are left to pick up the pieces.

Almost 70 percent of storefronts have reported an increase in theft this past year, and the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail estimates that organized retail crime accounts for $45 billion in annual retail losses. In one instance alone in February 2021, a group brazenly grabbed handbags worth $165,000 from the shelves of a Chanel store in New York in a daytime robbery.

Why the sudden spike in crime sprees over the past couple of years? Historically, organized retail crime tends to increase in challenging times. According to U.S. court statistics, retail theft skyrocketed by 16 percent after 9/11 and by 30 percent during the 2008 recession. It’s no surprise that we are seeing a similar, albeit accelerated, trend amid the protracted pandemic and crippling inflation.

But what makes this current organized retail crime wave more pervasive and problematic than ever is where these stolen goods may end up once they are swiped from store shelves. Gone are the days of pawning stolen merchandise on street corners and flea markets; criminals are turning to the anonymity of the internet to peddle their loot. Stolen items are showing up on the virtual marketplaces that consumers traffic on a daily basis, seamlessly fitting in with honest online storefronts and businesses.

That’s why federal legislation such as the Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces for Consumers, or INFORM Consumers Act, could be a valuable and essential tool. It’s the least Congress can do to support law enforcement online as they continue to work to combat organized retail crime. The bill requires online marketplaces to clearly disclose contact information of certain high-volume, third-party sellers to consumers and provide consumers with ways to report suspicious marketplace activity. The Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general would have authority to enforce the requirements.

 

Federal Reserve Bank Raises Interest Rates, Ratchets Up Inflation Fight

The Federal Reserve Wednesday raised its benchmark interest rate by a half point for the first time in two decades as policymakers intensify their fight to cool red-hot inflation, a move that threatens to slow U.S. economic growth and exacerbate financial pressure on Americans.

The 50-basis point hike — a widely anticipated move — puts the key benchmark federal funds rate at a range between 0.75% to 1.0%, the highest since the pandemic began two years ago.

The Fed also announced it will start reducing its massive $9 trillion balance sheet, which nearly doubled in size during the pandemic as the central bank bought mortgage-backed securities and other Treasury’s to keep borrowing cheap. In a plan outlined Wednesday, the Fed indicated it will begin winding down the balance sheet June 1 at an initial combined monthly pace of $47.5 billion, a move that will further tighten credit for U.S. households. It will increase the run-off rate to $95 billion over three months.

Collectively, the steps mark the most aggressive tightening of monetary policy in decades as the Fed races to catch up with inflation, which hit a fresh 40-year high in March.

“Inflation is much too high,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told reporters at a post-meeting news conference. “We understand the hardship it is causing, and we’re moving expeditiously to bring it back down. We have both the tools we need and the resolve that it will take to restore price stability on behalf of American families and businesses.”

U.S. Job Openings Rose to a Record 11.5 Million in March

Job openings increased to 11.549 million in March, the Labor Department said in its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) on Tuesday.

The number of vacancies across the U.S. economy has held sharply above the number of hires, which were little changed month-on-month at 6.7 million in March. And the number of quits also edged up to a record high of 4.5 million, with the quits rate hovering little changed at 3.0%.

By industry, job openings rose significantly among retail trade employers, with vacancies increasing by 155,000 month-on-month. Durable goods manufacturing industries also saw vacancies rise by 50,000 in March. On the other hand, vacancies decreased by 69,000 in transportation, warehousing and utilities industries, and by 43,000 in state and local government education.

Job openings across the board, however, remain well above pre-pandemic levels, as vacancies were averaging around just 7.1 million per month throughout 2019. And these openings have remained even as firms have brought back workers at rates well above pre-virus levels for much of the past year.

U.S. Manufacturing Activity Slowed in April

Factory activity in the United States last month dropped to its lowest level since July 2020 as supply chain snarls intensified amid a new wave of pandemic-related lockdowns in China, an industry survey said on Monday.

The Institute for Supply Management said its manufacturing index dropped almost 2 percentage points to 55.4 percent in April, against expectations for a modest increase, but still above the 50-percent threshold indicating expansion.

The culprit was a renewed flareup in the supply chain woes that have dogged American factories throughout their recovery from the Covid-19 downturn, and in particular, China’s aggressive moves to stop renewed outbreaks in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities.

“Overseas partners are experiencing Covid-19 impacts, creating a near-term headwind for the US manufacturing community,” said Timothy Fiore, the survey’s chairman. “Fifteen percent of panelists’ general comments expressed concern about their Asian partners’ ability to deliver reliably in the summer months, up from 5 percent in March,” he added.

 

Price of Diesel Hits All-Time High, Straining Trucking Industry

The price of diesel hit an all-time high in the United States this week as energy markets around the world cope with ongoing disruptions amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The average price of a gallon of diesel was $5.296 on Sunday, up about 4.3% from one week ago and nearly twice as much as one year ago.

While average Americans are feeling the pain at the pump with high gas prices, the trucking industry has been hit hard by the diesel surge.

“The prices are skyrocketing, and we still don’t get good prices for the loads,” Michal Agboire, who works for Maitland Trucking, told WNCN. “If it goes any higher than this, and the price of the load not coming up, then maybe we just call it quits.”

“To cover the increased cost of diesel, truckers must increase the rates charged to haul freight. These increased rates are then passed on to consumers via higher costs at the retail level,” Ron Faulkner, the president of Faulkner Trucking and 2022 president of the California Trucking Association, wrote in an op-ed at the Sacramento Bee this week.

 

We Energies Proposes Raising Electric Bills for Clean-Energy Transition

We Energies wants to raise your rates. Residential customers would see electric bills go up $5 to $6 per month to cover what We Energies calls the largest clean-energy transition in its history, according to our partners at the Milwaukee Business Journal.

The proposed electric rate increases would be 5% to 6%, the company said.

The investment includes $175 million for a solar farm in southwest Wisconsin. It creates nearly as much power as the biggest coal burning unit at the Oak Creek power plant with zero emissions.

It also includes $660 million for two large solar and battery projects in southeast Wisconsin. The company said it also plans to spend $700 million over the next decade to bury power lines and strengthen its delivery against severe weather, the Milwaukee Business Journal reports.

The typical customer’s rate increase will amount to $4 to $8 per month for natural gas. However, the majority of a customer’s gas bill results from therms used rather than the base rate.

A final decision on the rate change is expected later this year.

U.S. Economy Shrank 1.4% in 1st Quarter of 2022

Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of goods and services produced across the economy, shrank by 1.4% on an annualized basis in the three-month period from January through March, the Commerce Department said in its first reading of the data on Thursday.

The substantial downturn stems from a widening trade deficit, with the U.S. importing far more than it exported: In the three-month period from January to March, imports surged by nearly 20% as businesses and consumers bought more goods from abroad. But exports fell about 6% – an imbalance that widened the trade deficit.

The U.S. also saw a slower pace of inventory investment by businesses in the first quarter, following a surge in inventors at the end of 2021 as companies restocked in anticipation of the holiday-shopping season.

But key pillars of the economy – consumer spending and business investment – remained solid last quarter: Businesses and consumers boosted their spending by 3.6% at the start of the year, compared with 6.1% last year. Another bright spot in the economy is the jobs market. Unemployment fell to 3.6% last month, the lowest level since the pandemic began in February 2020, and jobless claims have continued to fall amid an exceptionally tight labor market.

State Lawmakers Approve DOT Plan for $280 Million in Federal Highway Funding

The Legislature’s budget committee has approved the bulk of a plan by the state Department of Transportation to spend more than $280 million in extra federal highway aid.

The funding is roughly 35 percent higher than Wisconsin expected to receive from the federal government when the Legislature passed the current state budget last year.

Part of the funding came from the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in November while the rest came from a federal funding bill passed in March.

The Wisconsin DOT’s plan for the money would spend about $124 million on state highway rehabilitation, $83 million on local transportation facilities and $61 million on local bridge improvements. The DOT’s plan also calls for spending about $10 million on a program that funds the construction and planning of on-road and off-road bicycle, pedestrian and other non-motorized vehicle facilities, as well as viewing areas like overlooks and turnouts.

The only point of conflict on the funding was over the DOT’s plan to spend $4 million on a “Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program,” which funds projects like improvements to traffic signal timing to improve traffic flow or the construction of bicycle facilities for commuters. Under a modification authored by Republicans, that funding could only be used on projects that reduce congestion or improve traffic flow within a highway right-of-way, meaning they could not be used for bicycle facilities.

GOP lawmakers, including state Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, the co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee, all voted in favor of the modified plan. “I think that overall the plan is — since the money’s here — is a good investment in our infrastructure,” Born said.