“Unemployment Office” (Bytemarks | Flickr CC BY 2.0)
Gov. Tony Evers signed legislation Thursday to start an overhaul of the state’s unemployment compensation computer system. The same bill includes language that grants businesses and nonprofit organizations immunity from being sued by people who blame them for transmitting the virus responsible for COVID-19.
The new law starts the process for the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD) to solicit proposals for a new computer system to process claims for unemployment insurance (UI). The department’s 50-year-old system was among the issues that DWD cited as responsible for massive delays when UI claims skyrocketed as businesses laid off workers because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new law lacks specific funding for the UI project, however, requiring DWD to go back to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee for financing.
The legislation originated with a special session that Evers called in January and that the Legislature’s Republican leaders at first rebuffed. After initially gaveling in but taking no action on the special session — as with several other special sessions the governor has called to focus on specific initiatives, including gun violence and racial justice — leaders of the GOP majority that controls both the Assembly and the Senate pivoted in February to move the legislation forward.
In doing so, they resurrected the COVID-19 lawsuit immunity language, a prize objective for business lobbying groups, including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. After reaching a compromise on the language in January, Evers had said he would sign it into law. An Assembly rewrite of that earlier legislation, however, introduced a series of additional measures that the governor said would undermine public health, leading him to veto that bill.
In addition to the COVID-19 lawsuit immunity provision, the new law also recovers other items from the earlier, vetoed legislation that had bipartisan support. Those include a continued temporary waiver of the state law that requires unemployed workers to wait one week after losing a job before applying for UI. Another measure supports the use of Work-Share programs, which allow employers in times of reduced business to keep full-time workers on part-time while the UI system pays them for their lost hours.
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