MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin's unemployment rate hit 14.1% in April, a level not seen since the Great Depression, the state Department of Workforce Development reported Thursday.
The rate more than quadrupled from 3.1% in March, mirroring national trends due to the coronavirus pandemic, and was just below the national unemployment rate of 14.7%. April was the first full month of Wisconsin's “safer at home” order issued by Gov. Tony Evers in reaction to COVID-19 that forced most nonessential businesses to close.
Unemployment never hit this high even during the Great Recession in 2008 or the recession in the 1970s, said Dennis Winters, chief economist for the state. The last time it was this high was during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when unemployment was around 25%, he said.
“This is a totally different phenomenon in its severity and rapidity with which it occurred,” Winters said. “The economy has taken a pretty severe hit in a very rapid manner.”
While unemployment has soared, so too has criticism from Republicans over the speed in processing claims for benefits. As of Monday, more than 2 million weekly claims had been filed since March 15, but more than 675,000 had yet to be paid. Republican lawmakers have urged Evers to quickly expand Workforce Development's staff and hours to process the claims.
State officials say they're working hard to process claims in the face of unprecedented demand. There were more than 4.2 million calls to the unemployment division last week alone.
Evers told reporters Thursday afternoon that most claimants are getting their checks but that the system isn't “foolproof.”
“We're doing the best we can,” the governor said.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court last week ordered an end to the stay-at-home order, resulting in a patchwork of local ordinances governing when businesses can reopen. Some businesses have moved more quickly than others to resume operations and hire people back.
“Today’s report shows the significant impact that the COVID-19 global pandemic has had on the Wisconsin economy, and underscores the importance of rationally and safely reopening our state,” Caleb Frostman, secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development, said in a statement.
Wisconsin lost nearly 386,000 private-sector jobs from March to April, the latest report said. Compared to the year before, Wisconsin lost nearly 402,000 private sector jobs.
Applications for temporary unemployment assistance in Wisconsin declined during the week ending May 16 as the U.S. economy bore the weight of growing virus fears, according to a release Thursday from the U.S. Employment and Training Administration. Applications fell to 31,314, a decrease of 19% from a week earlier.
Meanwhile Thursday, Evers announced he would funnel $100 million from federal coronavirus relief bill funds to long-term care facilities and emergency medical service providers.
The announcement came hours after Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke accused Evers of failing to help such facilities as they struggle to protect residents and staff from the virus. As of Wednesday, public health officials had launched 165 investigations into infections at long-term care facilities. The average number of cases per investigation is eight, according to the state health department.
“Unfortunately, the needs of these (facility) workers, who protect our communities’ most vulnerable, seem to have largely been ignored by your administration,” Steineke said.
Evers has promised that every resident and worker in all 373 Wisconsin nursing homes will receive a free coronavirus test as part of a plan to expand testing to everyone who needs one — as many as 85,000 people a week.
The governor disputed the idea the state has done nothing for them, but didn't provide updates on the progress of that testing. He stressed that his administration recognizes the burden long-term care providers face. His attorney, Ryan Nilsestuen, said any state funding would have to come from Republican legislators.
As of Thursday, Wisconsin has recorded 13,885 coronavirus infections and 487 deaths, according to the state Department of Health Services.