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Taking a Ride in the Wayback Machine

For those Wisconsinites who’ve waited far too long to collect unemployment benefits and can’t understand what in the damn hell took so long, perhaps a trip in the Wayback Machine will bring some clarity. Please stay seated during the trip. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Our first stop is 2001. Wisconsin’s jobless fund, which pays out unemployment benefits, has been severely weakened by the recession. If you look out your windows, a quick stop in 2009 reveals that the jobless reserve is now borrowing money from the federal government in order to keep paying benefits.  

I ask that you remain seated as we enter the year 2012, where the jobless fund is a whopping $1.2 billion in the red. If you roll down your windows, you’ll hear business owners loudly complaining to Governor Scott Walker about how much they’re paying in unemployment taxes to boost the fund.  

Tighten your seatbelt as we arrive in January, 2013, just in time for Walker’s State of the State speech, where he proposes a sweeping overhaul of the state’s rules, including tightening the standards for receiving jobless benefits. Folks who favor lower taxes, especially those angry business owners, are about to get what they want—the Walker administration is putting into place more red tape and hoops for the unemployed to jump through, making it harder for people to collect unemployment benefits, which will increase the fund that pays them out and decrease business taxes. Look at those CEOs in the front row of the visitor’s gallery, wildly applauding the governor’s speech. Don’t they look happy?

Some of you may have to fight a bit of motion sickness as we quickly arrive at the end of 2018. Walker has lost his re-election bid to Tony Evers. On his way out the door and just before Evers takes office, please watch carefully as Walker signs a lame-duck law restricting the new governor’s ability to waive certain requirements for state/federal benefits programs, including unemployment insurance. The reforms and rules that Walker and his colleagues championed during the past five years appear to be cemented in place.

Hold on tight as we fast-forward to the spring of 2020, and please make certain that all doors are locked. The COVID crisis is upon us, and suddenly, through no fault of their own, thousands of Wisconsinites find themselves out of work. They apply for unemployment insurance and are met by the terrifying “Ghost of Walker Reforms Past.” Those hoops put into place by Walker and his Republican colleagues making it harder for people to collect benefits are working so well, they’re clogging the system, slowing down what was already a challenging process.

As we arrive at the State Capitol in the summer of 2020, you’ll notice that Democratic lawmakers have shown up for work. They are proposing eight ways to change the state’s unemployment laws to make it easier for the jobless to get benefits by removing the hurdles that are contributing to the lengthy delays. See that woman over there? That’s Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, a Democrat from Mason. Let’s hear what she has to say:

“This pandemic is revealing that the challenges within the Wisconsin unemployment system are the direct result of the Walker Administration’s efforts to make collecting unemployment benefits harder.”  

Unfortunately, Republican legislators can’t hear her, because they have decided to stay home and–spoiler alert–they do so for the rest of the year.

Please remain seated until the Wayback Machine comes to a complete stop. We will not be revisiting the remainder of 2020 so as not to trigger any post-traumatic stress symptoms for our passengers. Besides, many of you know what happened next, because you lived it. Unable to shame the Republicans into coming to Madison to do their jobs, the Democrats’ proposals went nowhere. An antiquated computer system used to process unemployment claims, a system both parties failed to update during the past two decades, adds to even greater delays. Yes, no one could’ve predicted that the number of 2020 unemployment claims would far exceed even the record-setting number of the 2008 Great Recession. But still.

As you depart the Wayback Machine and re-enter 2021, you are strongly advised to watch your step, as it appears history is going to repeat itself. In his State of the State address, Governor Evers calls for a special session to fix the unemployment mess, starting with a request for $5 million to begin the process of updating the old computer system. But the Republican legislature is once again refusing to show up to work with him. “Fix it yourself,” they’ve told the governor. “You’ve got money in the budget.”

Except that he doesn’t. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo lists available accounts that Evers could tap into, but only one has more than $5 million. And that account is supposed to be used for fraud prevention. In fact, many of the accounts have no funds at all, with one showing an $85 million liability. Why would the Republicans in our state legislature, knowing the difficulties faced by their unemployed constituents in the months ahead, not even try to do everything in their power to help them?

Thanks for joining us on our journey in the Wayback Machine, where the ride is always free and there’s always a barf bag under your seat.

Photo by NON (@non_creation) at


  1. Thank Jill
    Barf bag please

  2. Born and raised in Wisco, watching the craziness from the sidelines is nothing less than harrowing and makes me glad I did my business there a few decades ago. Between Walker taking on the teachers and then witnessing Evers trying to do an almost impossible job with both hands tied behind his back, that damn kid in Kenosha and then having it be the place to take Gerrymandering 101, it makes me glad I now live in a calm, quiet, stoic, conservative city- New Orleans. Good luck y’all!

    • Yes, the Wisconsin of our youth is definitely not the same, for good and bad. To me, the political front here is mostly bad due to gerrymandering. Anything that allows our elected leaders, on either side of the aisle, to act with impunity, to be unresponsive and unaccountable to their constituents, can’t be what the founders of our democracy had in mind.

  3. Enjoyable ride. Thanks for the reminder.

    • You’re welcome. Although the reminders can be painful.

  4. Brilliant analysis and writing, and much IS news to me, Jill. Thank you ~

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