During the Senate floor session last Wednesday, Republicans signed off on a set of unnecessary and punitive Assembly bills that create additional roadblocks for Wisconsin workers accessing unemployment, despite Wisconsin’s unemployment rate being at a historical low.

In fact, Republicans already passed legislation requiring applicants for unemployment to document their work search last year. That didn’t stop them from putting a referendum on the ballot this past spring asking if the voters favored a work requirement – after they’d already passed the legislation.

As we saw during the pandemic, unemployment insurance is an important tool to provide stability to those between jobs. It’s important to note that workers pay into the unemployment insurance program when they are employed. It’s not a “handout” that goes to those who choose not to work. Despite Republican efforts to paint hardworking Wisconsinites as “takers,” this is simply not the case.

Wisconsinites already participate in the workforce at one of the highest rates in the nation. In fact, we have a shortage of workers, as Wisconsinites are aging out of the workforce or moving out of the state.

In his biennial budget proposal, Governor Evers put forward many measures to address Wisconsin’s worker shortage. Evers’ budget proposal includes up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave – time Wisconsinites would be able to use to welcome a child to their family, to care for an ailing family member or to recover from a medical procedure or unexpected injury.

Lack of access to affordable child care is another barrier to entry in the workforce. Working parents lose less productivity when they can afford and depend on quality child care for their kids. The Child Care Counts program has been effective in helping child care centers stay open and affordable, but we must continue to provide this vital support so that parents can have access to quality and affordable child care.

Mothers still take on a majority of child care responsibilities despite younger generations of fathers taking on a more direct role. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, if women in Wisconsin participated in the labor force at the same rate as countries with paid leave, there would be an estimated 22,000 more workers in the state with $758 million more in wages earned statewide.

By providing workers with paid family and medical leave and supporting our child care facilities, we address the root of our workforce shortage. The Republicans’ plans create more hoops to jump through in order for workers to access the unemployment insurance they have paid into.

Just last month across the Mississippi, Minnesota enacted legislation to guarantee workers paid family and medical leave starting in 2026. For border communities like many in Senate District 31, it’s troubling to think how western Wisconsin communities will suffer if the employment market in Minnesota provides better quality of life for workers.

We are losing young workers at an alarming rate as older workers age out of the workforce. Young Wisconsinites want action on issues like affordable healthcare (including mental health care), environmental protections, reproductive freedom and cannabis legalization.

Legislative Democrats will continue to champion real solutions to our workforce shortage and advocate for the quality-of-life issues that will attract workers to our state. We can build a more productive workforce, and I hope that my legislative colleagues are as committed as I am to that goal.

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Senator Jeff Smith

Senator Jeff Smith has served in the State Senate since 2019. Senator Smith has worked tirelessly in his community on public education opportunities, health care access and affordability, redistricting reform, protections for water and helping people run for elected office.

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