Legislature Poised To Approve Unemployment System Upgrades, COVID Legal Immunity For Businesses

The state Assembly is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a plan to once again waive Wisconsin’s one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, to move forward with updating the archaic technology behind Wisconsin’s unemployment system, and to give businesses and schools legal immunity during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

All three measures are included in one bill. The plan passed the state Senate last week. If approved, it will move to Gov. Tony Evers for his signature. 

The waiting period for unemployment benefits is currently back in effect after a previous suspension, approved in last year’s COVID-19 response bill, ended Feb. 7. Under the proposal, the waiting period would be waived again until March 13.

The federal government requires the suspension to be in effect for the state to receive some federal unemployment funds authorized as part of its pandemic response. Allowing the suspension to lapse costs Wisconsinites $1.3 million per week in federal benefits, according to a memo from the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office.

The Evers administration attempted last week to pursue extending the waiver through the administrative rulemaking process, but according to a memo from the Legislature’s nonpartisan legal office, any extensions must be approved by state lawmakers.

The portion of the bill dedicated to upgrades to the state’s antiquated unemployment system technology would require the Department of Workforce Development to begin the upgrades by June 30 and to exhaust any federal funds available before seeking state money for the project. 

Administration officials have said that funding model could pose challenges as the state tries to garner interest and proposals from businesses that could do the work.

Democrats have unsuccessfully argued the Legislature should approve the $79.5 million Evers included in his state budget for the project’s initial phases. 

Evers called a special session of the Legislature last month on revamping the state’s unemployment system, which has been blamed for substantial delays in unemployment benefit payments during the pandemic. Lawmakers had not taken up any legislation to do so until this proposal surfaced. They argued Evers had enough funding at his disposal to tackle the problems on his own, an argument the Evers administration disputed.

The bill’s proposal for legal immunity for businesses, schools and other entities during the pandemic was initially included in a failed state COVID-19 response bill vetoed by Evers earlier this month. The proposal would provide the institutions protections from lawsuits even if they don’t follow local, state or federal requirements aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus.

Supporters of the plan argue it will protect them against frivolous lawsuits brought by people who cannot prove where they contracted the virus. Opponents say the state should be doing more to shield workers and citizens, rather than institutions. 

Evers previously agreed to back the business liability proposal under a compromise COVID-19 bill negotiated with state Senate Republicans earlier this year.

Editor’s Note: This story will be updated.