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Gov. Evers calls for special session to begin modernization of state's unemployment system
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Gov. Evers calls for special session to begin modernization of state's unemployment system

State of the State (copy)

Gov. Tony Evers delivers his State of the State address virtually as members of the Assembly watch from the Assembly Chambers at the state Capitol in Madison on Tuesday.

Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday called for a special session of the Legislature, asking members to consider his plan to modernize the state's unemployment insurance system. 

Evers wants $5.3 million to update the antiquated system after thousands of residents faced delays in receiving money over the last year in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. He announced the plan during his State of the State address Tuesday and is calling on lawmakers to meet at noon on Jan. 19. The initial investment would be the first part of a 10-year modernization plan Evers is proposing that would cost the state $90 million total. 

“We know that replacing this system will take years — that’s why it should’ve been done sooner, but it’s also why we now have not another moment to waste. No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let’s just get it done,” Evers said in his State of the State address

Though Wisconsin's unemployment system was already old, the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed it like never before, according to Evers' office.

From 2016-2019, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development handled 7.2 million claims. Since the pandemic started in March 2020, DWD received 8.8 million claims alone — 1.6 million more claims than the four previous years combined. The department increased staffing in the Unemployment Insurance Division from about 500 employees to 1,800 employees to answer phone calls, process claims, and follow up with individuals who applied for benefits.

During this time, DWD paid nearly 600,000 claimants more than $4.6 billion in unemployment insurance benefits, though many waited weeks and months to receive money. 

The state's unemployment insurance problems are a centerpiece of the ongoing spat between political parties. Republicans and Democrats largely blame each other for its problems. In his speech Tuesday, Evers said both parties were to blame but said Republicans presided over a lack of investment in the system and passed laws that made the benefits more difficult to access. 

Republicans continue to be critical of Evers' handling of the backlog of claims and have said they want a solution. Senate and Assembly Republican leaders have not said whether they support Evers' latest plan. 

“Tonight, we heard absolutely nothing about how Gov. Evers abdicated all responsibility when tens of thousands of Wisconsin workers were begging for help in receiving their unemployment aid. Where was the leadership?" said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke in a statement Tuesday. 

A recent state audit found it took officials weeks or months to start working to resolve unemployment claims for Wisconsin residents in some cases. DWD staff worked an average of three hours of overtime per week between March and September while the backlog continued.

If the changes are approved, they would bring needed updates to a system that has struggled when job losses balloon. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported these issues were known by at least three administrations and hundreds of lawmakers.
 
"This past year brought to bear the inaction of my predecessors and members of this and previous Legislatures who avoided their responsibility and duty for far too long," Evers said. "Well, I’ll tell you this: it’s gone on long enough. It ends tonight."

The plan would include $481,700 for the request for proposal process to hire consultants and select a vendor for the modernization. It would also provide for a potential clawback of state dollars should the federal government provide additional resources to states to fund UI modernization for which this project is eligible. Any federal dollars that are appropriated would need to be used first.

Finally, the bill contains several provisions related to electronic methods for engaging in transactions, such as making electronic communication mandatory, with a good cause exception, and specifically permits the use of electronic records and signatures for UI. These changes will allow for more efficient communication with and service to claimants, employers and other entities.

Briana Reilly contributed to this report.

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.

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