A bill that would increase the penalties for defrauding the state’s unemployment insurance fund cleared the Assembly on a 62-35 party-line vote.

Backers of the bill have argued the stricter penalties under the bill are needed to help deter individuals from intentionally committing fraud. Dems and other opponents, though, have expressed concern workers who unintentionally defrauded the system could get caught up in the new punishments and that it should be applied to employers who commit fraud.

Currently, those who knowingly lie to get unemployment insurance benefits could be fined between $100 and $500 or imprisoned for up to 90 days, or both. The GOP legislation, though, would create four tiers of penalties.

The first tier, in cases where the value of any benefits obtained doesn’t exceed $2,500, would increase the possible fines to eup to $10,000 or up to nine months of imprisonment, or both. The second-through-fourth tiers would then trigger Class I, H and G felony charges.

Members also shot down along party lines two Dem amendments, including one from Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville, that looked to make the penalties applicable to employers that defraud the system.

“I cannot understand why we would not trade employer fraud and employee fraud exactly the same,” she said.

But bill co-author Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-R-Salem, said the current bill “isn’t the vehicle to do that,” and she’d work with Kolste over the summer on separate legislation to address employer fraud.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where a similar version of it died last session after clearing the full Assembly.

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