Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 20, 2021
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — They didn’t “punt.” They didn’t “gavel in and gavel out.” And they haven’t refused to do anything.
The Republican-controlled Legislature on Tuesday opened a special session on the state’s broken Unemployment Insurance system called by Gov. Tony Evers. Contrary to many media accounts, the majority gaveled in the session and suspended it until Thursday.
There remains much to discuss, Republican leaders say, on the Evers administration’s dysfunctional Department of Workforce Development. They note DWD’s Unemployment Insurance division was ultimately overmatched not by antiquated technology (as the governor insists) but by breathtaking incompetence and a failure of administration leadership from the top down.
True, Republicans aren’t interested in what they see as Evers’ proposed Band-Aid, a $5 million measure to hire consultants to figure out how to update DWD’s integrated technology. They point out the governor had the money and the authority months ago to fix the manpower and organizational problems that plagued an agency that failed to resolve the unemployment claims of tens of thousands of displaced Wisconsinites for months.
“The Governor has twiddled his thumbs for months while hard-working Wisconsin families were left out to dry with no income and no assistance from DWD. Now he wants to pass the buck to the legislature in order to save face instead of owning the consequences of his own inaction,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna).
It has been a disaster of epic proportions. While the outbreak of COVID-19 triggered a historic flood of unemployment insurance applications, Evers’ failure to prepare contributed to much of the damage. He apparently didn’t consider or didn’t care about the repercussions from his lengthy statewide lockdown that forced businesses to shut down and drove thousands upon thousands of people out of work.
DWD’s response was pathetic.
An audit in September by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found DWD calls centers answered less than 1 percent of the 41.1 million telephone calls they received between March 15 and June 30. Claimants have told Wisconsin Spotlight that they waited on hold for hours only to have their calls dropped. One claimant who had waited months for unemployment benefits said a DWD adjudicator told her she would have to wait longer because, as of that day, the adjudicator was going on vacation.
Joshua Kuehn of West Allis told Wisconsin Spotlight last week that he has been waiting over 300 days for the agency to resolve his federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claim, which it had initially approved in July.
Evers finally asked his DWD secretary, Caleb Frostman to resign — in September, a half year and thousands of very unsatisfied claimants later. As Wisconsin Spotlight reported, Evers had just three meetings with Frostman over the period, and that included the day he fired him.
As Republican lawmakers have noted, the governor had at his disposal some $2 billion in federal COVID relief funding. The federal CARES Act gave governors, and governors alone, flexibility and full authority in deciding how to spend the money. He could have devoted a portion of the money to further expand DWD’s staff and hours of operation, something Republicans have proposed in their COVID relief bill.
“What today’s special session illustrates is yet another instance of failed leadership by Governor Evers,” Steineke said. “Instead of using his office and the existing tools at his disposal to lead, our governor has shown yet again he prefers a scoop and shovel approach to problem solving.”