This week the Wisconsin State Assembly unanimously passed legislation, Special Session Senate Bill 1, that directs the governor to begin upgrading the Unemployment Insurance (UI) computer systems at the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). The bill requires DWD to issue a request for proposals within 30 days after the effective date of the bill. The legislation also includes provisions to protect businesses, schools and local governments from frivolous lawsuits and exempts the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits through March 14.
Hopefully, it will put an end to the governor's excuses for not starting these upgrades himself. Throughout the pandemic, 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. Here is a timeline outlining many of the missteps:
- October 2019 - DWD meets with IT companies about updating the UI benefits system (nothing moves forward)
- March 12, 2020 - Governor Evers declares a state of emergency and unemployment claims spike to more than 100,000 a week
- May 15, 2020 - DWD finally announces an expansion of call center hours to 7AM – 5PM (previously 7:35AM -3:30PM)
- May 27, 2020 - UI Administrator Mark Reihl says they are doing a “great job” managing UI
- June 23, 2020 - The governor said he has no answers for those on unemployment
- July 9, 2020 - Republicans roll out a plan to provide federal aid to the unemployed waiting in adjudication. Evers calls it a "stunt"
- September 15, 2020 - DWD state agency budget request does not include new funding for IT improvements
- September 18, 2020 - DWD Secretary Frostman resigns
- September 25, 2020 - Legislative Audit Bureau releases an audit showing less than 1% of calls were answered by DWD during the height of the pandemic
- December 14, 2020 - Legislative Audit Bureau releases an audit indicating DWD was largely responsible for delays when processing UI claims
- December 28, 2020 - DWD announced they are seeking public input to update the UI application process. Republicans had been calling on them to review the process since June
The governor can’t blame the computer systems as the main reason for the backlog of unemployment insurance claims. It's worth repeating that several nonpartisan legislative audits showed less than 1% of the calls were answered at the call center during the height of the pandemic and DWD was responsible for 85% of the delays in payments.
The people of Wisconsin have waited far too long for the state to resolve the issues at the Department of Workforce Development caused by Governor Evers.