Ken Lonnquist

Ken Lonnquist

For the past 40 years, I’ve made my living traveling Wisconsin as a singer-songwriter. During that time, I was never “unemployed” — until March, when COVID-19 put an end to live performances.

One thing that’s kept me going is the small monthly stipend I get from Social Security Disability Insurance. I began receiving SSDI a few years back after I became legally blind and unable to drive as a result of Type 1 diabetes. It helps with transportation and vision-aids, which has allowed me to continue to travel, write, perform and record.

But the program that has helped me stay afloat now threatens to sink me financially — along with many of the other 160,000 Wisconsin workers with disabilities who receive SSDI.

After the pandemic struck, I watched my savings account dwindle as I anxiously awaited Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds from the state Department of Workforce Development. These are $600 weekly payments for 16 weeks to workers who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

After a long, stressful wait, I received notice from DWD that I was “denied.”

In 2013, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed and Gov. Scott Walker signed a law that bars workers who receive SSDI from also collecting unemployment benefits. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called this “double dipping” that “may constitute fraud.”

The SSDI payments are meant to keep people working, not substitute for employment income. They merely “prime the pump” so disabled workers can continue to draw water. SSDI benefits fall far short of what’s necessary for shelter, food, medical expenses and taxes.

Those of us now being denied unemployment benefits have paid into the unemployment compensation program the same as other workers. The money we are being denied is our money. We’re hurting. We need help. But the Republicans in the state Legislature don’t care.

“Democrats simply want to make it easier to stay on unemployment and cheat the system,” Vos claimed in a statement aired on WKOW’s “Capital City Sunday” on July 19, regarding a package of bills Democrats are now circulating, including one to let SSDI recipients collect unemployment.

Former Gov. Walker also appeared on the program to insist that denying unemployment to SSDI recipients is “not because of policies in the past” but because DWD has “such an incredible backlog.”

The DWD website cites the law Walker signed as its basis for denying unemployment benefits to recipients of SSDI.

These statements from Vos and Walker demonstrate ignorance, indifference, and even cruelty toward disabled Wisconsin workers. COVID-19 threw millions of people out of work, but it’s the Wisconsin Legislature that is throwing the disabled to the wolves.

Dealing with COVID-19 is hard enough for people with disabilities.Why deny disabled residents who lose their jobs the pandemic assistance that other workers are receiving? Why deny the Wisconsin economy the significant cash infusion this would bring?

Since mid-March, I’ve done a Facebook Live half-hour show for kids and families every weekday morning (https://www.facebook.com/ken.lonnquist). It helps keep me in practice, entertains folks of all ages, and offers a resource to teachers seeking topics and themes for virtual study-units.

It gives me a little semblance of normalcy, and makes me feel like I’m doing something positive as we all endure this pandemic.

Our Legislature needs to do something positive, too.

Ken Lonnquist is an award-winning singer-songwriter who lives in Madison. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine.

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