Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill to begin updating the state’s outdated unemployment system and put back in place the suspension of the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits Thursday.
The bill passed in the Assembly and Senate with wide bipartisan support earlier in the week. It was the first bill the legislature passed under Evers’ special session on the unemployment system, which he called for in January.
Although the bill does not allocate any funding to begin modernizing the Department of Workforce Development’s IT system, it requires the DWD and the Department of Administration to find a contractor to begin the project by June 30.
According to a Wisconsin Legislative Council memo, the DWD must look for and use any federal funding to undertake the project, and the Joint Finance Committee can approve supplemental funding “for the purpose of obtaining funding for the project.”
In a press release, Evers said it was “unfortunate” that the legislature cut funding his administration asked for.
“I want to be clear, this bill won’t be enough to solve the problem. 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. And I’m proud this bill was passed with bipartisan support. So, today, we’re going to take the first step toward ensuring something like this never happens to the people of Wisconsin again,” Evers said.
In late January, Evers and the Republican-controlled legislature were at an impasse over beginning to upgrade the state’s outdated unemployment system. DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek and other department officials testified before a Senate committee, showing their 1970s-era technology.
Republicans argued that Evers had available funding to start upgrading the system, but Politifact found that the funds available to the governor were insufficient to cover the full cost, estimated at about $90 million.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the legislation provided a “simple and easy roadmap” for Evers to start upgrading the computer systems.
“There have been many missed opportunities and a lack of urgency by the Evers administration to address many of the issues with the unemployment insurance process during the pandemic. If Governor Evers needs us in the legislature to require him to do his job, we will,” Vos said Tuesday when the bill passed the Assembly.
Ahead of the vote, Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, said the “unwillingness on the part of Republicans” left Wisconsinites behind as they waited for unemployment benefits.
“The bill we will pass today is a critical step toward helping those who have lost their jobs and their income during the pandemic and will begin the process of upgrading our aging infrastructure, but this is not enough. I remain hopeful that the legislature can come together to approve the Governor’s proposed investments in our UI infrastructure during the upcoming budget process,” Subeck said.
Evers’ biennial budget includes $79.5 million in fiscal year 2021-22 to make improvements to the state’s unemployment insurance system in a “continuing appropriation for necessary upgrades, which will avoid significant information technology challenges in future periods of higher or spiking unemployment.” It will also provide $15 million to address workload increases for the agency amid the pandemic.
The new law also extends a waiver of the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits until March 13. It also includes liability protections for businesses, schools, higher education institutions and other entities against lawsuits related to COVID-19 injuries or deaths.
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