Put politics aside and fix unemployment system
Wisconsin’s state unemployment compensation system is not so much broken, as it is the victim of bipartisan institutionalized neglect going back decades.
The roots of this neglect are based in part on Wisconsin’s legendary work ethic and the state being simply too cheap to want to do more than band-aid fixes to keep the system limping along.
Wisconsin values work. Generations of Wisconsinites identify themselves by the work they do and the value this gives them. The flip side of this is a very real prejudice against those who are unemployed as being partly or entirely to blame for their circumstances due to some moral shortfall. There likewise seems to be no shortage of apocryphal stories about people who are gaming the system. This has played out in politics as legislators have erected hurdles to qualifying and applying for benefits. The state’s goal in the past decade, especially as workforce labor shortages have become common, is to make the system as difficult as possible to use in order to serve as an encouragement for people to get back to work.
The other cause of the neglect is based on the notion that the roof only leaks when it rains. Instead of fixing the proverbial leak when the sun is shining, state elected leadership in both parties have only been willing to invest in a bucket and a wet floor sign. This is because the system mostly works and the percentage of people who fall through the cracks only becomes notable during major recessions and the unprecedented response to COVID-19. Places, such as Milwaukee County, saw unemployment rates go from 3.7% in March to 14.8% in April and did not begin to drop until summer.
Fixing the system won’t be easy or cheap. The base software that runs the system dates from the early 1970s. To put this in perspective, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was born in 1968. He was a toddler when programmers used COBOL to modernize the statewide system that serves as the primary safety net for workers.
Over the decades since, there have been numerous calls to invest in upgrading the system. One of the primary reasons given is that COBOL is fast becoming a “zombie” computer language that, while running on many legacy banking and financial systems, is no longer being widely taught. The number of programmers who are capable of even supporting it is declining due to people aging out of the workforce.
Wisconsin must act quickly to replace and modernize the state unemployment system. Gov. Evers has projected this could cost as much as $90 million and take between three and seven years. He has called for a legislative special session to take action on his plan. Given the political reality and animosity between Evers and Vos, any immediate action is unlikely. Cooler heads are needed to bridge the divide and move Wisconsin forward.
Wisconsin leaders in the governor’s office and legislature need to stop pointing fingers and instead get to work on needed upgrades to the unemployment safety net.