Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday signed legislation to begin the process of updating the state’s antiquated unemployment system, which officials have blamed for the persistent backlog of claims caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The legislation, which unanimously passed the Assembly Tuesday and the Senate 27-3 last week, allows the state Department of Workforce Development to begin seeking bids from companies for updates to the unemployment insurance system, which has been estimated to cost at least $80 million. The bill also includes a temporary extension of the state’s one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits and adds liability protections against COVID-19-related lawsuits for businesses, schools and governmental entities — measures included in a coronavirus relief package Evers vetoed earlier this month.
In a video message of the bill signing, Evers said the outdated unemployment system has been well-documented, but challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic, which caused skyrocketing unemployment numbers across the state, forcing many people to wait weeks or months to receive benefits.
“At the end of the day, this problem could’ve been addressed by the previous administrations and more than a decade’s worth of state legislators who knew this system was outdated and couldn’t handle an economic crisis like the one this pandemic created,” Evers said.
Evers had originally asked the GOP-led Legislature to spend $5.3 million to begin updates on the state’s unemployment system, but Republicans on the state’s budget committee removed funding from the bill last week. As written, the DWD would first need to use any available federal dollars to begin updates and secure permission from the GOP-led committee for the use of state dollars.
“It’s unfortunate that the Legislature chose to cut the funding we’d asked for to commit to upgrading our system from start to finish — because I want to be clear, this bill won’t be enough to solve the problem,” Evers said. “But after a decade of failing to act, I’m proud my special session could finally prompt the Legislature to do something on this issue.”
The bill signed Thursday marks the first time a special session called by the Democratic governor directly resulted in legislation from the GOP-controlled Assembly and Senate. Other special sessions called for by Evers relating to gun control and pandemic-related adjustments to last year’s spring election were largely ignored by the Legislature.
The Evers’ administration and DWD officials have pointed to the unemployment system, which uses 60-year-old computer programming language, as a major cause for the department’s struggles to quickly process the unprecedented number of unemployment claims spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state’s aging unemployment system has been a known issue for several years and administrations. Former Gov. Jim Doyle began efforts to update the system in 2007, but the plan was ultimately scrapped. Former Gov. Scott Walker approved several measures over his eight years in office related to unemployment eligibility, the one-week waiting period and work search requirements, but did not pursue upgrades to the system. Evers did not include updates to the system in his 2019-21 biennial budget, but has done so in his latest budget proposal.
“I see blame on both sides of the aisle, because both sides of the aisle had a chance to fix the unemployment system a long time ago,” Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, said Tuesday.
DWD officials have said skyrocketing claims, paired with GOP-authored unemployment laws and the aging system, have complicated the adjudication process and exacerbated delays, while Republicans have assigned blame to a lack of leadership or quick response from Evers, especially during the early months of the pandemic.
State audits released last year found fewer than 1% of calls to the state’s call centers were answered between March 15 and June 30 and that DWD was responsible for 11 of the 13 weeks it took, on average, for the department to resolve initial unemployment claims filed in the early weeks of the pandemic. In September, Evers fired former DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman over the persistent backlog of claims.
Other bills signed
Also on Thursday, Evers signed a bipartisan bill to allow cooperatives to hold annual or special meetings and conduct votes remotely.
Another bill signed into law expands the definition of multijurisdictional to include other countries or nations for the purposes of the Wisconsin lottery. Proponents of the change say it would be necessary in order for the state to continue selling Powerball tickets if Powerball Game Group, the board that oversees the lottery game, expands the availability of tickets to other countries, something that the organization is considering.