Wisconsin proceeds with updating unemployment call center

MADISON, Wis. — Implementing a new call center to help unemployed people 24 hours a day, seven days a week is moving ahead with the signing of a $1.2 million contract, Gov. Tony Evers’ administration announced today.

The state Department of Workforce Development received a $2.4 million federal grant that it is using to begin overhauling the 50-year-old computer system that Evers has blamed for causing delays in helping customers and getting out unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic.

Problems with the state’s call center, which was unable to handle the massive spike in calls particularly early on in the pandemic, will be the first target for improvements with the system. Republicans have blamed the Democratic governor for not doing more sooner to address the problem and a state audit showed that fewer than 1% of calls to the unemployment hotline were answered by state officials.

Evers fired Caleb Frostman, the former secretary of the department that handles unemployment claims, and pushed the Legislature to approve new funding to upgrade the computer system. Lawmakers have known for years that the department’s computer system and software were out of date, but the pandemic laid bare the problems.

The department hopes to have the new call center up and running within six months.

“Typically, it can take over a year just to lay out the requirements for a full system overhaul of this scale,” department secretary Amy Pechacek said in a statement. “The department is on an aggressive timeline to begin a full-scale modernization of the (unemployment insurance) system, so we’ve worked to start this project as quickly as possible.”

The department signed the $1.2 million contract on Tuesday with a federal agency to work with the state to find vendors to do the system overhaul.

The larger upgrade, expected to cost $80 million with no agreement yet on how to pay for it, will take years. The Legislature last month approved a bipartisan bill signed by Evers to begin the upgrade, but did not provide funding for the project.