By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The Republican-led Assembly on Tuesday passed a package of measures that begin the work of upgrading the state Department of Workforce Development’s integrated technology system and frees businesses, schools and nonprofits from frivolous COVID lawsuits.
Unanimous passage in the Assembly followed heavy bipartisan supported of the legislation last week in the Senate.
Despite DWD’s myriad failures in processing hundreds of thousands of Unemployment Insurance claims over the better part of the past year, Gov. Tony Evers and his fellow Democrats have blamed all of the problems on Republican lawmakers for not previously allocating the funding to replace the old technology.
But Evers did nothing about the IT system in his first budget and was slow to act last year as tens of thousands of Wisconsinites were forced to wait several weeks and months to receive their unemployment benefits. The bigger problem was a failure of leadership and a lack of adequate staffing to handle the flood of claims — the result of COVID-19 and Evers’ statewide lockdowns and other restrictions that followed.
Evers called a special session (one of many show sessions he’s requested over his first two years in office) to deal with DWD’s tech issues. He sought $5.6 million to cover the cost of consultants. Republican lawmakers said the governor didn’t need a special session, he needed to use the existing tools he had to begin fixing the problems.
“The legislation provides a simple and easy roadmap for the governor to finally move forward at upgrading the unemployment insurance 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,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). “If Governor Evers needs us in the legislature to require him to do his job, we will.”
Before the governor taps into state funds, the bill demands he use federal COVID-19 relief money to help finance the cost of planning and building a new IT system. He could have done as much last April with a portion of the $2 billion the state received in the first round of federal relief. Evers chose not to prioritize the flawed technology.
Over the course of the pandemic, DWD’s backlog of claims surpassed 700,000. An audit found 38.3 million unanswered phone calls from hurting Wisconsinites, only 1 percent of the calls were answered. Evers was forced to fire his DWD secretary in September after six months of failures.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) told his colleagues on the Assembly floor that Wisconsin’s Unemployment Insurance debacle was a “fake crisis.”
Hintz should tell that to Brittney Gitzlaff, a Menomonee Falls mother of three young children who in mid-October had bee been waiting since March for DWD to pay the unemployment benefits it owed her. At one point, a DWD adjudicator asked her if her 8-year-old daughter could watch her younger siblings so that she could go back to work. Her children’s school went virtual and she needed to take care of them.
Hintz might want to consult with Ronald Letzia. The 70-year-old West Allis man, as of late January, had been waiting eight months for DWD to finish his claim. Letzia, with health complications that forced him out of the workforce during COVID-19, was originally approved by the agency before paperwork glitches and red tape slowed the claims process down to a crawl.
These are just two of the many, many stories of human suffering caused by Evers’ dysfunctional Department of Workforce Development.
The legislation also waives Wisconsin’s one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits. It’s a crucial provision that opens up extended federal funding for jobless Wisconsinites. A Republican coronavirus relief package Evers vetoed earlier this month included the waiver. Evers rejected it because the legislation came with limits on his use of public health emergency declarations.
DWD last week said it had “taken the first step” in drafting an administrative policy that would waive the waiting period, but the agency doesn’t have the authority to do so, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is losing more than $1 million per week in special federal funding without the waiver in place.
Also included in the DWD package is a measure that would protect businesses, schools and governments from COVID-19-related lawsuits. While the protections don’t extend to bad actors that wilfully neglect worker and customer safety, they do prevent what industry experts predict will be a wave of lawsuits from litigation chasers.
“(The bill) would protect businesses, schools, and non-profits that ‘do the right thing’ to safeguard their workers and the public from predatory lawsuits. We support SB 1 and ask Governor Evers to sign it into law,” said Wisconsin Civil Justice Council executive director R.J. Pirlot.