Pandemic Unemployment

In a legislative session requested by Governor Evers, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed Special Session Senate Bill 1 with wide bipartisan support that addresses Wisconsin’s unemployment crisis and protects Wisconsin businesses.

Most importantly, this bill provides Governor Evers with a simple roadmap to move forward in upgrading the Unemployment Insurance computer system. A report by the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau found that at the beginning of the pandemic, when hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were filing for unemployment, only 1% of calls were answered by the Department of Workforce Development (DWD).

Governor Evers has maintained that the woefully inadequate response by his administration was due to an outdated computer system.  Even while maintaining that stance, the governor forced Caleb Frostman, his director of DWD to resign on September 18th for inadequately handling the unemployment crisis.

However, looking further into the unemployment mismanagement, the administration itself already had the means to update DWD’s technology. A memo dated January 13, 2021 by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau substantiated that Governor Evers had the ability to address the computer system since the pandemic began.   

According to the memo: “The Department of Administration (DOA) administers both the state’s procurement process and master lease program.  The master lease program is an alternative financing mechanism available to state agencies to fund large procurements over a specified period of time.”

The memo continues: “From July, 2014, through December, 2019, $157.9 million of master lease funding was approved by DOA, of which 90% ($142.1 million) was related to 28 information technology projects.”

On January 13, Governor Evers called for a special session to overhaul the technology used by the Department of Workforce Development, calling it “antiquated” and “inflexible.” I find it curiously disingenuous that Governor Evers would call for the legislative special session to essentially grant him permission to tackle DWD information technology. Ironically, even as late as December 2019 his DOA’s master lease program approved procuring that technology for other departments.

Additionally, the bill provides businesses with protections from frivolous lawsuits. As local businesses continue to reopen and reduce restrictions, the last thing they should be worried about is predatory attorneys seeking to profit off the pandemic. Businesses have a right to choose what restrictions they have in place, and those rights should be shielded from lawyers and judges that would seek to impose liability on businesses acting in good faith.

I hope the Governor will use this roadmap to address the unemployment crisis Wisconsin is facing. Far too many constituents have contacted me for assistance after waiting months for their unemployment claims to be administered and approved. Currently, we’re learning that some Wisconsinites, after waiting months to receive their unemployment compensation, are now getting letters that the DWD overpaid. According to the department, about 80,000 recipients will have to pay back the overpayments totaling $66 million.

Special Session Senate Bill 1, having passed almost unanimously through both the Assembly and the Senate, was signed into law by Governor Evers the day after it was sent to his desk. The Evers administration lacked urgency in dealing with all the problems plaguing pandemic unemployment. Unfortunately, it took the legislature to push him into doing his job.