Month: September 2021

Modernization Efforts are Moving Forward for Wisconsin’s Outdated Unemployment System

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development moved forward Wednesday with plans to modernize the state’s unemployment insurance system as it emerges from problems brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madison-based software development company Flexion will help bring the department’s decades-old computer systems and technology up to date as part of a $16.5 million contract.

DWD is working to release updates to the unemployment system as they become ready, said Stacia Jankowski of the department’s Office of Integrity and Accountability.

“Our modernization strategy reflects an iterative approach to … customer service improvements as soon as possible while claims processing continues uninterrupted,” said Jankowski.

Jankowski said the overall cost of those modernization efforts was projected to be around $80 million. According to the department press release, federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and the CARES Act are paying for those upgrades.

The changes would bring more timeliness and automation into DWD’s operations, such as in the addition of chat bots and virtual agents, said Neeraj Kulkarni, the department’s chief information officer and IT bureau director.

“DWD will be able to respond quickly to changing UI needs through greater flexibility in hiring and training resources to assist in times of need because using the system will be familiar and intuitive,” said Kulkarni.

USPS Mail Delivery is About to Get Permanently Slower and Temporarily More Expensive

Americans who have been frustrated with the slow service of the U.S. Postal Service since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic probably won’t be thrilled to hear this: The service is about to get even slower.

Starting Friday, the Postal Service will “implement new service standards for First Class Mail and Periodicals,” spokeswoman Kim Frum said in an email to USA TODAY.

The changes mean an increased time-in-transit for mail traveling long distances, such as from New York to California. Frum said that “most first class mail (61%) and periodicals (93%) will be unaffected” by the changes. Single-piece first-class  mail traveling within the same region will still have a delivery time of two days.

The Postal Service defines first-class mail as “standard sized letters and flats,” Frum said. That’s different from first-class packages, which are typically used for shipping smaller, lightweight packages. Currently, first-class mail and first-class packages have the same delivery standards, but that will change beginning Friday.

Additionally, starting October 3 through December 26, the Postal Service will temporarily increase prices on all commercial and retail domestic packages because of the holiday season and its increase in mail volume. Those price increases will not affect international products, Frum said.

PSC Takes First Step Toward Awarding $100 Million for ARPA Broadband Access Grants

On Thursday, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC or Commission) met to discuss the eligibility, overall priorities, and the timeliness of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Broadband Access Grant applications. In July, the PSC received 240 applications requesting more than $420 million for projects that will expand high-speed broadband internet to unserved and underserved locations in the state. The Commission is expected to make award decisions for the $100 million by the end of October 2021.

“We know all too well that the lack of broadband in parts of our state is leaving many people behind,” said PSC Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq. “This funding will get people connected and help Wisconsin bounce back stronger. I want to thank Governor Evers for making these ARPA dollars available to get Wisconsinites access to broadband.”

Internet service providers, telecommunications utilities, cooperatives, local governments, and for-profit and non-profit organizations were eligible to apply for grants from June 1, 2021, to July 27, 2021. The Commission will approve projects that will be completed by December 31, 2024.

In addition to the $100 million in ARPA funding, the 2021-2023 Biennial State Budget, approved by Governor Evers in July, provides $129 million in state grant funding over the next two years for the Broadband Expansion Grant Program. Details about that funding will be announced in the near future.

CDC Leader Adds People with Risky Jobs to COVID Booster List

Today, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky endorsed the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ (ACIP) recommendation for a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in certain populations and also recommended a booster dose for those in high risk occupational and institutional settings.

This updated interim guidance from CDC allows for millions of Americans who are at highest risk for COVID-19 to receive a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 booster shot to help increase their protection.

CDC recommends:

  • people 65 years and older and residents in long-term care settings should receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series,
  • people aged 50–64 years with underlying medical conditions should receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series,
  • people aged 18–49 years with underlying medical conditions may receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series, based on their individual benefits and risks, and
  • people aged 18-64 years who are at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission because of occupational or institutional setting may receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series, based on their individual benefits and risks.

Many of the people who are now eligible to receive a booster shot received their initial vaccine early in the vaccination program and will benefit from additional protection. With the Delta variant’s dominance as the circulating strain and cases of COVID-19 increasing significantly across the United States, a booster shot will help strengthen protection against severe disease in those populations who are at high-risk for exposure to COVID-19 or the complications from severe disease.

CDC will continue to monitor the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines to ensure appropriate recommendations to keep all Americans safe. We will also evaluate with similar urgency available data in the coming weeks to swiftly make additional recommendations for other populations or people who got the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Governor Evers Offers a Plan to Repeal Wisconsin’s Personal Property Tax

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers offered a plan Wednesday to repeal a tax on businesses even though he vetoed legislation to do just that less than two months ago.

Republicans who control the Legislature called the move hypocritical. Evers said he was offering a better plan to end the state’s personal property tax than the one he vetoed, which he has said was drafted in a “haphazard” fashion.

“This legislation will continue our efforts to support businesses and families as they bounce back from the pandemic while ensuring our local governments have the aid they need to remain whole,” Evers said in a statement.

Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel of Saukville, a longtime backer of the effort to end the personal property tax, said the way Evers rolled out his plan “has all the hallmarks of political cover and not serious legislating.”

Republicans who control the Legislature this summer approved a bill to end the personal property tax alongside the state budget. The budget included a provision to provide local governments with state payments to cover revenue losses that would be caused by ending the tax.

Evers vetoed the bill to end the personal property tax because he said Republicans wrote it in a way that could have resulted in an additional tax break for utilities.

He said at the time he backed ending the personal property tax and approved the budget provision that set aside funds for local governments. He now wants to tap into that account for his plan to end the personal property tax.

In a news release, Stroebel accused Evers of “political posturing” and said his plan would treat outdoor advertisers and the makers of manufactured homes unfairly.

Evers said the new legislation was better than the bill he vetoed because it would ensure local governments would receive inflationary increases in state aid to cover their revenue losses.

U.S. to Ease Travel Restrictions on Fully-Vaccinated Foreign Visitors

The United States announced a new international air travel system Monday, opening travel for all vaccinated foreign nationals in early November, including those currently impacted by the U.S. travel ban.

“This vaccination requirement deploys the best tool we have in our arsenal to keep people safe and prevent the spread of the virus,” said White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients. “Vaccines continue to show that they’re highly effective, including against the delta variant, and the new system allows us to implement strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Travelers will need to show proof of full vaccination prior to boarding U.S.-bound planes. A COVID-19 test will also continue to be required within three days of departure and proof of negative results must be shown. Enhanced contact tracing and masking will also be required, but there will be no quarantine mandate.

The new policy also adds more stringent testing requirements for unvaccinated U.S. travelers, who will need to test within one day of departure and once again after arrival.

Zients said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release a list of accepted vaccinations before the new policy goes into effect, as well as a contact tracing order that requires airlines to collect information such as phone numbers and email addresses of all U.S.-bound travelers.


Applications Period Opens for $10.8 Million in Grants for Summer Camps Impacted by Pandemic

On Friday, the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) announced it is accepting applications for over $10 million in grants designed to assist overnight summer camps serving school-aged children and persons with disabilities, and Minor League sports team organizations that were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The two grant programs will provide financial support for organizations that provide valuable education and outdoor recreation experiences as part of Wisconsin’s continued bounce back from the pandemic.

“When it comes to pandemic assistance, the Evers administration is striving to ensure that all valuable parts of our economy receive support,” said DOA Secretary Joel Brennan. “As a lover of baseball and a father of two, I know first-hand the invaluable opportunities that summer camps and Minor League sports teams provide for our young people, and look forward to helping these organizations bounce back.”

The Minor League Sports Teams Grant program will provide funding of up to $200,000 per eligible organization, for a total of $2.8 million, while the Summer Camp Grant program will provide funding up to $50,000 per eligible organization, for a total of $8 million.

The grant applications launched today will be administered by DOA, and will remain open through October 15, 2021. Informational webinars and program FAQ to follow. Grant recipients will be announced later this fall.

Additional information, including grant program criteria, is available on the program websites:

Applicants are encouraged to submit questions and check the program websites for updates.

WILL Sues Town of Buchanan for Adopting, Implementing Unlawful Tax

Yesterday, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) filed a lawsuit against the Town of Buchanan, in Outagamie County, after the municipality adopted and implemented a “transportation utility fee” that violates state law and circumvents strict levy limits.

The Town of Buchanan adopted a “transportation utility fee” in late 2019 to generate revenue to pay for its roads. The “transportation utility fee” is charged to “all developed properties” and is used to fund “the cost of utility district highways, stormwater management, sidewalks, street lighting, traffic control” and “any other convenience or public improvement.”

But this fee – despite its name – is really an unlawful tax. Nothing in state law authorizes municipalities to charge a road-use fee; rather, road costs are financed primarily through property taxes, which are subject to strict levy limits and uniformity requirements. The Town of Buchanan appears to be using this fee to circumvent those limits on property taxes.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, Buchanan was at its levy limit of $2.4 million last year. They are using this additional tax to levy $850,000 more from taxpayers—homeowners pay $315 annually and businesses and other properties pay between $200 and $8,000.

WILL is asking the court to declare the Town of Buchanan’s “transportation utility fee” illegal and issue an injunction to prevent Buchanan from levying, enforcing, or collecting the fee.

Nationwide Retail sales Rose 0.7% in August

Consumer spending unexpectedly accelerated in August as back-to-school shopping bolstered sales. Retail sales, a measure of spending at restaurants, stores and online, last month rose 0.7% to $618.7 billion, according to the Commerce Department.

Clothing and clothing accessories sales rose 3.3% month over month and were 38.3% above year-ago levels. Gasoline sales jumped 1.6% compared to July.

Retail sales excluding autos jumped 1.8% month over month compared with the 0.1% decline that was anticipated. Auto sales declined 3.6% last month.

Nonstore spending increased 5.3% and food and beverage store sales rose 1.8%, “perhaps reflecting Delta-driven fears pushing consumers back to shopping from and eating at home,” said Michael Pearce, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.


GOP Bill would Provide Jobless Pay for Workers who Reject Vaccine

A Republican-authored proposal would let Wisconsinites quit their job and still draw unemployment benefits if their employer requires the COVID-19 vaccine or proof of vaccination.

Wisconsin is an employment-at-will state, which means if someone is fired or quits their job, they are ineligible for unemployment benefits, at least for a while. That worries State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), who said getting vaccinated should be left up to the individual, not government bureaucrats or employers.

Stroebel’s bill would carve out an exception allowing someone who gets fired or voluntarily quits because their employer requires the COVID-19 vaccine to collect benefits.

This proposal has been introduced and referred to standing committees in both chambers, so the next step is scheduling a public hearing.

However, if the bill does end up on the governor’s desk, it seems to be all but dead on arrival. Last month, a spokesperson for the governor tweeted that Evers would veto such a bill.