DWD hires company to upgrade unemployment system to avoid future backlogs

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Upgrades to Wisconsin's outdated employment system are underway after the Department of Workforce Development announced they hired an IT company to overhaul the system to address issues raised during the pandemic.

A Madison-based IT company, Flexion, will be paid $16.5 million in federal relief aid to revamp how unemployment claims are processed after the pandemic exacerbated the current system.

"We are excited about all of these projects, which really are focused on making things easier for the people of Wisconsin," said Amy Pechacek, Department of Workforce Development secretary-designee.

Pechacek added the company's goal is to ensure there's not another backlog of unemployment claims, which left tens of thousands of people waiting for a paycheck after COVID-19 impacted the workforce. There's no timeline on when the modernization will be complete but the agency anticipated they would occur "very soon."

The contract with Flexion is in addition to other changes the agency has made since the pandemic, such as hiring additional employees, expanding hours at the call center and improving the application process by eliminating confusing language that resulted in many applicants being denied benefits.

The first phase of the modernization of DWD's call center is expected to launch next week, according to Pechacek. 

The technology used to process the unemployment system dates back to the 1970s, which is part of the reason why the department wasn't equipped to handle a surge of applicants.

Democrats and Gov. Tony Evers sought to use state aid to upgrade the system months ago, but Republicans ignored the request, arguing issues at the department could have been resolved sooner without additional funding.

"I don't think it's right to blame it all on a computer system," said Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam). "The governor could have opened the call center for more hours, (he) could have contracted staff a lot sooner than they did."

During Evers' State of the State address in February, he called on the Legislature to meet in a special session to address the outdated unemployment system, but GOP leaders refused.

During that time, Evers did not have federal relief aid to spend since it wasn't delivered to states until late March. Democrats urged Republicans on budget committee to set aside state funding for much-needed upgrades at DWD, but co-chairs of the committee ultimately decided to rely on the federal government for the project.  

Born did give credit to DWD for hiring the IT company but still blamed the Evers administration for not allocating federal funding for the project sooner.

"It's a step in the right direction that they are finally getting this going, but it's another example of failed leadership as we still have thousands of people stuck in this UI system."

Currently 12,526 individuals are stuck in a backlog of appeals waiting for their case to be reviewed by an adjudicator, according to DWD data. More than 15,000 are waiting whether or no their appeal was approved or denied. 

Pechacek said the department has hired additional judges, about 60, to help speed up the time applicants are waiting for their hearing to be scheduled.

"We are continuing to recruit and add additional resources as necessary to work though those cases," said Pechacek.

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