MADISON, Wis. (AP/TMJ4) — The Wisconsin Assembly has overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill designed to jump-start updates to the state’s antiquated unemployment claims processing system.
Gov. Tony Evers has promised to sign the bill which the Senate passed last week on a 27-3 vote.
The Assembly unanimously passed it Tuesday 89-0. Evers has taken intense criticism for months over a backlog of unemployment claims stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
"To be clear, none of the three, non-partisan audit bureau reports of the Department of Workforce Development, recommended an upgrade to the IT systems," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said. "Audits did show less than one percent of the calls that were answered were actually helped and we also saw the DWD was responsible for 85 percent of the delays in payments. Let's be careful when the Governor tries to blame an old, outdated system. The reason the calls were not answered was because the agency head, who was fired, did not do his job."
Vos, speaking of Former DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman resigning in September. Lawmakers want to knkow exactly how much the upgrade will cost and are directing the Evers Administration to bring them a funding proposal in the next 30 days.
Evers has largely blamed the state’s antiquated, 50-year-old computer processing system for handling the claims. The bill as passed also waives the one-week waiting period for receiving unemployment benefits until March 14. People like Joe Bukiewicz, a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) recipient, will have to wait until April for help.
"One would think that they should be able to think outside the box a little bit to figure this situation out in a way quicker period of time," Bukiewicz said.
The DWD says, despite it being an existing program, it will take them until April 24 to code PUA into their system.
The bill also does not address additional barriers to unemployment benefits, like a ban on Social Security Disability recipients from receiving unemployment or removing substantial fault as a factor in eligibility. Employees who are fired after making a series of accidents at work can still be denied benefits. The bill also does not help the 16,000 people who were unfairly denied and are waiting on an appeal
"It's kind of frustrating when you know for a fact that your owed money and it's still not given to you," Valerie Anderson, a woman waiting on an appeal said. "It's almost a year since the pandemic started."
The bill also extends limited liability from COVID-related lawsuits to businesses, governments and schools.