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Wisconsin Legislators Push Forward Plan To Modernize Unemployment System

Richard Hurd
A bill to overhaul the unemployment system advanced through Wisconsin's GOP-controlled Joint Committee on Finance. Now it heads to the Senate and Assembly.

Millions of people have lost their jobs in Wisconsin during the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in a massive influx of 9.2 million unemployment insurance claims since last March.

For perspective, Wisconsin handled just more than 7 million claims in the previous four years combined.

The increase in claims has exposed the cracks in an aging system and has sometimes resulted in people waiting months to get their unemployment checks.

Legislators on the Joint Finance Committee took up modernization requests Wednesday, with Republicans who control the committee ultimately pushing forward their version. 

Democrats and Republicans agree Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance program needs a massive overhaul.

And the pandemic has underscored that. Since March, the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) has paid out $5 billion dollars.

DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pachacek described the problem at a Joint Finance Committee meeting Wednesday: "The UI division's IT system was developed in the 1970s using COBOL. The system is comprised of roughly 8.6 million lines of code, has been modified, updated, and extended numerous times over the last 50 years and was not designed to support multiple distinct programs simultaneously.”

She said modifications to the system — even minor ones — are cumbersome and time consuming.

Gov. Tony Evers had called the Legislature into a special session in January, requesting immediate funding of $5.3 million dollars to renovate and modernize the claims system.

In his budget proposal Tuesday, the governor proposed nearly $80 million annually to fund the upgrades.

Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee offered their own plan Wednesday. They eliminated the upfront $5.3 million dollars and were wary of the $79 million.

Here’s Republican Sen. Kathy Bernier of Chippewa Falls: “So if we seem reluctant to just give away $79 million, or whatever the amount is, without being accountable for what it is we're going to do, I think that is fair, as the representatives of the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin, so you can recognize that."

Under the GOP legislators’ plan, the DWD would have to use federal money first to pay for upgrades and ask the committee for state dollars as needed.

Democrats, in the minority on the committee, asked members to pledge the resources necessary up front.

Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee said the $79 million annually is a guarantee that the state fixes the system.

“And I think that's something that people around the state want to hear and see, the headline should be the Legislature acted to fix this problem and modernize the UI system. And without this amendment in this language, the headline will read the Legislature agrees to have more meetings about whether or not they should actually fund the fix to this unemployment compensation," he said.

Republicans on the committee voted down the Democratic amendment, instead requiring the DWD to find a contractor first, and, ultimately the committee passed the GOP changes 15-0.

In addition to addressing modernization to the claims system, the committee also approved extending a waiver of a one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits through mid-March.

And the panel added civil liability exemptions for COVID-19 claims against businesses, government entities and schools. That’s a provision sought by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a key Republican donor.

Gov. Evers vetoed a GOP COVID-19 relief bill with such exemptions earlier this month — largely because it would have prohibited employers from requiring vaccinations and limited health officials’ ability to restrict gatherings.

The measure now goes to the Assembly and Senate.

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