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Finally, Evers responds to unemployment crisis

Gov. Tony Evers’ troubled Department of Workforce Development continues to have trouble getting out-of-work Wisconsinites the benefits they’re due.

And the frustration is growing.

“Is there anyone I can talk to about when I will start getting paid? I won my appeal in July and want to know when I get paid,” Stacy Knowles recently wrote on the Wisconsin Unemployment Support Group’s Facebook page.

When will I get paid? It remains a common question among Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance claimants more than a year and a half after the COVID-19 outbreak hit and Evers’ job-killing lockdowns began. More than 12,000 people were stuck in DWD’s clotted appeals process as of late last month.

Now, nearly a year after Republican lawmakers urged Evers to dip into the billions of dollars in federal COVID relief funding to fix the agency’s outdated IT system, the reluctant governor is finally taking their advice.

The administration has signed a $17 million, multi-year contract with software developer Flexion. The Wisconsin State Journal confirmed federal funds will cover the cost of DWD’s entire $90 million upgrade plan, which includes improved call centers and a virtual career center.

“(Evers) could have done something to help improve the system when thousands of people were suffering because of his Administration’s incompetence. He didn’t,” said state Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine).

In January, Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) sent the governor a letter requesting he “immediately initiate a request for proposal” to upgrade  the “antiquated” technology.

“If you believe the UI IT System is truly the cause of the unacceptable backlog of unemployment claims under your administration, your action on this issue is egregiously overdue,” the lawmakers wrote at time.

Instead, Evers played politics and the blame game, saying the Republican majority in the Legislature had failed to act on upgrading the UI system.

Evers in his State of the State address called for a special session of the Legislature to take up his $5.3 million proposal to begin “modernizing’ the claims system. A portion of the funding would pay for a consultant to tell the state just what upgrades are needed and how much they would cost.

Republican lawmakers reminded him that he had at his disposal federal COVID aid that he could use to fix the system.

“He could have done something to help improve the system on his own when we asked him to do it in January. Or February. Or March. Or any other day of the year to help fix the system. He didn’t,” Wanggaard said.

The IT system, however, is but one of myriad sources of the debacle that has been the Department of Workforce Development’s handling of Unemployment Insurance claims that poured in after Evers and his health chief locked down the state at the outbreak of the pandemic.

“This was a self-imposed coma on our economy and he did it through his executive orders shutting down the state,” Marklein said in January. “If you’re going to shut down the economy, which he did, wouldn’t you think one of the first state agencies hit would be your Department of Workforce Development?”

A report in May from the the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE)found Workforce Development has failed on two critical fronts: Getting unemployment checks to eligible claimants and protecting the state’s Unemployment Insurance system from fraud and waste.

A subsequent audit found the Evers administration violated federal regulations in its failure to resolve appeal decisions in a timely manner from June 2020 through May 2021.”

Beyond the tech issues are the incompetence and leadership failures at the agency. Lawmakers have taken many complaints about unprofessional, rude, and unreachable DWD staff.

“My constituents are frequently citing unprofessional behavior by DWD representatives, with several documenting encounters with rude, untrained, non-responsive, and combative DWD staff. This is unacceptable,” said Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) in June.“My constituents are already in a tough spot and the Evers administration is making it worse.”

The frustrations remain.

“And while Evers is taking a victory lap today, over 12,000 Wisconsinites are still waiting for their unemployment appeal hearing to just be scheduled. The delays are inexcusable. But unfortunately, all too predictable with Governor Evers,” Wanggaard said.

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