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The GOP-controlled Legislature did pass a series of laws limiting access to unemployment benefits for some people
That has contributed to the strain on an outdated computer system.
But the Evers Administration has been able to clear up a backlog using the system, suggesting the GOP changes are not solely to blame.
Wisconsin has faced a host of issues with unemployment payments during the coronavirus pandemic.
First, the outdated system for managing claims was overwhelmed, creating a backlog that persisted for most of 2020. The Department of Workforce Development also saw an influx of calls about unclear questions, mistakes on applications and general confusion about unemployment benefits, of which only a small percentage were answered.
Some people have waited nearly a year for their benefits to arrive, living on the edge of losing homes, cars and the ability to feed families.
Gov. Tony Evers has faced backlash over how his administration has handled the issue.
He, in turn, has said the GOP-controlled Legislature carries much of the blame.
Here is how Evers phrased it Jan. 12, 2021 during his annual State of the State address:
"The fact of the matter is that previous administrations and more than a decades’ worth of legislators have known this system was outdated and couldn’t handle an economic crisis like the one this pandemic presented, and they never took the time to fix it. And to make matters worse, the Legislature spent the last decade passing laws deliberately making it even harder for people to access these critical supports when they need it most, exacerbating the problems with our already-outdated system."
That’s a lot. For this fact check, we are focusing on the end of the claim.
Did actions by the Legislature -- which the GOP has held outright since 2010 -- deliberately make it harder to get benefits and exacerbate problems?
When asked for backup, Britt Cudabeck, deputy communications director for Evers, cited a series of laws passed since 2011 related to unemployment. Many were outlined in a May 26, 2020 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Here’s a look at some of the laws:
In 2011, the Legislature passed a law creating a one-week waiting period before anyone who lost a job could claim benefits. Then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed the measure. Evers and Republican lawmakers agreed to suspend the waiting period, but the law is expected to go back into effect in the coming months.
In 2012, Republicans approved a law that prevented claimants from receiving benefits if they didn’t search for work, worked more than 32 hours in a week or got more than $500 in sick pay, holiday pay, vacation pay or termination pay.
In 2013, among other changes, Republicans expanded the work search requirement and established more instances in which benefits could be cut off for "misconduct," which previously had to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
In 2015, they passed a law requiring people seeking unemployment benefits to take a drug test, but that measure has not yet been implemented because the federal government did not sign off on the measure until 2019. During the same year, Republicans increased the number of situations in which someone can be denied benefits for refusing a job offer.
Most recently, in 2018, just before Evers took office, Republican lawmakers approved lame-duck laws that limited the governor’s power in many ways, including by restricting the ability of the administration to waive many criteria for receiving benefits.
A 2017 study by the National Employment Law Project found that Wisconsin had one of the steepest increases in unemployment denials between 2012 and 2016, the time in which most of the above measures were passed. The denial rate for those five years was 10%, up from 1% from 2007 to 2011.
So, there is no question Republicans passed a series of changes that made receiving unemployment benefits more difficult.
That said, there are other elements to the claim.
Part of Evers’ claim was the GOP-backed changes were "exacerbating the problems with our already-outdated system."
Adam Gibbs, communications director for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said the intent of the bills was to help close a deficit. Meanwhile, Adam King, director of social media for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in an email that the changes in state law were "consistent with many other states and federal guidance" and that the changes have not been the cause of slower benefit payments.
Neither directly addressed whether the changes in the law made the problems being experienced today worse.
The Evers administration has said the outdated unemployment computer system, which is nearly 50 years old, is hard to program, causes delays and makes applying for unemployment hard for Wisconsinites.
Yet, after the backlog developed, amid a public outcry, Evers replaced the head of the department and under new leadership (and a partnership with Google Cloud), the backlog of claims has nearly disappeared.
So, the backlog was cleared using the same system, which undermines Evers’ point.
Evers claimed the Legislature has made it harder for people to access unemployment insurance over the last decade.
The changes made to the unemployment system by Republicans over the past decade is well documented. And the changes have been grafted into an outdated computer system.
But those changes are not entirely to blame for the problems getting the system functioning smoothly today.
We rate this claim Half True.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Less than 1% of calls to state unemployment call centers were answered, audit shows," Sept. 25, 2020
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "‘I don’t know what to do’: With weekly unemployment claims rising, Wisconsinites are still waiting for answers," Jan. 15. 2021
Gov. Tony Evers, "State of the State Address," Jan. 12, 2021
Email conversation with Britt Cudaback, Jan. 27, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Gov. Tony Evers faces criticism over unemployment issues, by GOP lawmakers created restrictions that limit his ability to act," May 26, 2020
National Employment Law Project, "Closing Doors on the Unemployed," Dec. 2017
Email conversation with Adam King, Director of social media for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Jan. 27, 2020
Email conversation with Adam Gibbs, Communications director for Devin LeMahieu, Jan. 27, 2020
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