‘The screens all look extremely outdated, because they are’: DWD pushes to update Wisconsin’s unemployment system

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MADISON, Wis. — The state Department of Workforce Development is once again highlighting the need to update the agency’s outdated computer system in order to better meet the needs of Wisconsin residents filing for unemployment.

Department heads participated in an online briefing Wednesday morning to show the public what employees face when processing claims. The presentation featured screenshots of the current system, which look as if they were pulled from a pre-Window computer or one that still requires the use of a 3×5 floppy disk.

“The screens all look extremely outdated, because they are,” said Emily Savard, a program and policy analyst with DWD. 

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DWD currently uses a computer system that is more than 50 years old. The system makes it hard for staff to communicate with those submitting claims and that small issues can cause major delays in processing a claim.

“We work in government, so no one expects the government to have the latest and greatest in any technology, but what DWD has been working with was a complete shock,” said DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek, who has been overseeing the department in September. She replaced former Secretary Caleb Frostman after he was asked to resign by Gov. Tony Evers.

The outdated software is also difficult to learn, which was a challenge this past year as DWD brought on hundreds of new employees to help meet the overload of claims triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Never has the state experienced such an incredible surge in unemployment insurance claims so quickly,” Pechacek said.

Around 1.28 million initial claims were filed in Wisconsin between March 15, 2020 and Jan. 16, 2021. This is four times the amount of claims filed in all of 2019, Pechacek said.  DWD has also received more than 10 million weekly claims during this period, compared to the 7.2 million claims received in the four-year period between 2016 to 2019.

DWD has been criticized for how long it has taken for Wisconsin residents to receive their benefits, with some people waiting several months.

“The only path to preventing and preparing for future crisis like the one we are working through now, is a comprehensive, modernization of our IT system,” Pechacek stressed during the briefing.

Additional staffing and a partnership with Google have allowed DWD to clear its unemployment insurance backlog. Staff resolved or assigned out all issues that were more than 21-days old on Dec. 30, allowing the agency to operate at seasonal and pre-pandemic levels.

DWD officials said the Evers administration began researching efforts in 2019 to improve the outdated system.

Evers called for a Special Session to take up legislation to fix the state’s broken unemployment system in this year’s State of the State Address. In his State of the State response, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, blamed Evers’ “lack of leadership” as the reason thousands had to wait.

Gov. Evers also proposed a plan that would appropriate more than $5.3 million for the DWD to start modernizing its system. The GOP-led Legislature refused to take up this issue during the special session.

Earlier this month, Republicans in the legislature released a statement saying they do not support the bill.

“Legislative audits have shown the major issues with the backlog at the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) during the pandemic were not due to an old computer system but rather mismanagement of the agency itself,” Republican leaders said in a joint statement.

The group, including the chairs of the Joint Committee on Finance, cited a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that suggested the department has the authority to move forward with purchasing IT upgrades on its own.

“Governor Evers continues to cast blame on others and accepts little fault himself,” Vos said in the statement. “We are always open to passing necessary legislation, but unfortunately, this Special Session call is about politics; not about policy.”