Budget committee approves proposal to overhaul the unemployment system

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A day after the governor delivered his budget address calling for bipartisanship, lawmakers unanimously approved a proposal to address long-overdue problems at the state’s unemployment agency. 

Members of the state’s budget committee approved legislation to allow the Department of Workforce Development to begin the process to overhaul the outdated technology system used to process unemployment claims. 

"We are offering a compromise that will allow this process to move forward and address IT issues the governor has raised," said Rep. Mark Born, co-chair of the budget committee.

The bill wouldn't immediately fix the computer system. It would require DWD to submit a funding request to the committee to pay for the project. DWD’s Secretary Amy Pechacek estimates it could cost $79 million to revamp the decades-old UI system. The budget committee also has the power to approve who the state contracts for the upgrade.  

DWD could also use federal funding to pay for a portion of the project if Congress approves another COVID-19 relief bill. 

The department faced an unprecedented number of claims throughout the pandemic that ultimately created a backlog with thousands waiting weeks or months for benefits. DWD said the outdated technology was partially to blame but has since claimed they cleared the backlog, shifting claimants to the adjudication process. 

One-Week Waiting Period, Liability Protections

The committee also added to the bill to waive the one-week waiting period until March 13, less than four weeks away. It also adds liability protections for businesses to protect them from lawsuits during the pandemic. 

Senator LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said she's always had concerns about protections against COVID-19 lawsuits and wished the one-week waiting period was permanent. 

"We know this pandemic is not over, everyone is not vaccinated, so I feel it should be extended as long as the pandemic is here," Johnson said.

Governor Evers previously supported all the measures in the bill, including liability protections, as part of a compromise bill with the State Senate, but later vetoed it after Assembly Republicans added additional provisions he opposes. 

The proposal now heads to the Assembly and Senate for final approval.

Evers' spokeswoman did not immediately respond when asked whether or not he will support the bill if it reaches his desk.

"If upgrading the unemployment system is truly a priority for Governor Evers, he will support this legislation," said Born. 

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