How Wisconsin’s unemployment system failed a pandemic stress test — 11/17/20

A roundup of top news and information about Wisconsin’s response to the coronavirus

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Today we highlight our examination of how Wisconsin leaders’ actions and lack of action in recent years set up the state’s unemployment insurance system to fail during the pandemic, leaving thousands of jobless residents without income for months. 

For years, Republicans and Democrats failed to upgrade 1970s-era computer systems that slowly processed claims. And Republicans under former Gov. Scott Walker enacted a slew of restrictions — in the name of reducing fraud — limiting access to benefits, according to a report by Marty Hobe of TMJ4 News and Bram Sable-Smith of Wisconsin Watch and WPR. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Workforce Development under Gov. Tony Evers has drawn criticism for not reshuffling resources more quickly to address the backlog of jobless claims — currently at about 93,000, Hobe and Sable-Smith report. 

The report came as Evers, a Democrat, unveiled $541 million in pandemic relief legislation Tuesday that included small measures to streamline processing of jobless claims — alongside an evictions moratorium and requirements that insurers cover COVID-19 testing, treatment, prescriptions and vaccines, Molly Beck and Patrick Marley report for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called his own Tuesday afternoon press conference to unveil Republican ideas — but no new legislation — despite Evers’ request that leaders in both parties work together on a relief package. 

“The Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers appear to be heading toward a familiar place: At risk of no action being taken while COVID-19 cases soar, even as other states take new steps to prepare for a cold winter that will push more people indoors, raising the risk of infection,” Beck and Marley report.

Top Stories

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Victor Forberger, supervising attorney for the University of Wisconsin’s Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic, works from his home in Madison, Wis., on May 26, 2020. He has represented dozens jobless clients struggling to receive unemployment aid during the pandemic. “Landlords are falling behind. The whole economy is going into a tailspin because the department is falling through. And I worry about folks — and what’s going to happen if fundamental change doesn’t happen pretty soon,” he says.

Thousands await jobless aid as Wisconsin leaders blame each other for failure Wisconsin Watch/TMJ4 News 

Tony Evers releases $541M COVID-19 relief package but Republicans signal tough path Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

New Dane County order bans indoor gatherings, limits outdoor gatherings to 10 people Wisconsin State Journal

Emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines likely in weeks, though U.S. still headed for a harsh winter Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Wisconsin prepares to get, deliver COVID-19 vaccine Wisconsin State Journal 

Wisconsin prison system sees highest single-day spike in COVID-19 cases with 808 new infections Wisconsin State Journal 

Kenosha City Council approves citywide face mask mandate to prevent COVID-19 spread Kenosha News

Pandemic creates whiplash effect, uncertain future for Midwest businesses Lee Enterprises Midwest 

Dane County businesses bear brunt of COVID-19 enforcement without being infection hotspots Wisconsin State Journal

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“I don’t have the governor’s phone number. I don’t have a phone number for the county’s nursing director. But I’m a voice of concern. And what I’m looking at in front of me is a small business financial crisis. I’m expecting leaders out there in our government to be having a real dialogue going on right now.”

— Edmund Halabi, operator of the Italian House in Janesville, as quoted by the Janesville Gazette 

Data to note

WisContext offers these visualizations of Wisconsin’s startling trends in COVID-19 infections, deaths and hospitalizations.

Resilient Wisconsin

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NNS Spotlight: ‘We wouldn’t take a recess’: How the Southside Organizing Center presses on despite the pandemic Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service 

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