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Tony Evers wakes up to a worker shortage

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers locked down the state, drove small businesses out of business, and vetoed a bill that would have brought relief to employers struggling through a worker shortage crisis. Now he says he’s got a $130 million plan to save the day.

His critics say they’re glad the governor is finally getting it, but his plan to throw $130 million in federal pandemic-relief funds at the problem is a big swing and a miss.

“Today, the governor finally connected the dots and acknowledged there is a workforce crisis in our state,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) in a joint statement. “Since his one-size-fits-all emergency order (in March 2020), employers have struggled for over a year to stay open and find workers. Now, 500 days later, he finally acknowledges the dire challenges small businesses are facing.”

Evers says he’ll mark $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for a “workforce innovation grant program.” Evers has about $2 billion at his disposal. At least 10 regional workforce initiatives will be awarded up to $10 million.

Who will lead the effort? The Department of Workforce Development, the Evers’ agency that miserably failed  in getting desperately needed unemployment benefits to tens of thousands of jobless Wisconsinites — many of whom were forced out of work by Evers’ illegal stay-at-home orders.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., arbiter of which companies were “essential” or “nonessential” during the pandemic, will also lead the effort.

Wisconsin Manufactures & Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business advocate, says the governor’s “fragmented approach ignores Wisconsin’s biggest challenges and provides little oversight to ensure the state attracts and retains a talented workforce.”

“Wisconsin’s business community appreciates that the governor has acknowledged our state has a workforce shortage,” said WMC President & CEO Kurt Bauer. “But, Gov. Evers must also understand that this disjointed plan will spend a lot of federal funds without solving our short- and long-term challenges.”

WMC proposes Evers:

  • End the $300 federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits: A new Morning Consult poll revealed that nearly 2 million people would reenter the workforce nationwide if the expanded unemployment benefits were eliminated.
  • Fully fund a statewide talent attraction campaign: The State Legislature appropriated $3 million over the recently signed two-year budget for a talent attraction campaign. Gov. Evers should greatly expand this funding through a coordinated statewide effort to bring people into Wisconsin.
  • Invest targeted funds in STEM education and technical training for Wisconsin’s youth: Wisconsin needs to better prepare students for the jobs available in the state by ensuring they have the proper skills to pursue these careers – not just a four-year college degree. This means the state must have targeted funding for additional STEM courses, technical training and an expansion of programs like dual-enrollment.

Last month, Evers vetoed  a Republican bill that would have ended the federal unemployment bonus payment. Combined with the weekly state unemployment insurance payments, some jobless Wisconsinites are making nearly $17 an hour, more than they were earning before being laid off. Businesses and economic experts say the federal subsidy is enticing some to stay on the sidelines at a time when employers are begging for workers. More than half of the states have ended the federal program.

Instead, Evers wants to drop $20 million in federal funds on a “worker advancement initiative,” again led by the Department of Workforce Development. He says the program will connect people who lost their jobs and have not re-entered the workforce with employment opportunities. The remaining $10 million will pay for “career coaches.”

Vos and LeMahieu assert the governor’s workforce development plans continue “a long pattern of failed leadership in managing Wisconsin’s unemployment challenges.”

“The governor has a personal piggy bank of federal COVID stimulus dollars and thinks by spending $130 million on even more government programs that will be enough incentive to get people to come back to work,” the Republican leaders said. “We already have many programs in place to help people get back in the workforce; this workforce shortage is a problem created by government, not solved by it. We need to remove the clear barriers preventing people from a full return to work before more Wisconsin businesses are lost forever.”

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