On Thursday, February 25, Governor Tony Evers signed 2021 Act 4, legislation including both COVID liability protections and reforms to the state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) system. The bill cleared the Legislature with widespread support, passing the Senate by 27-3 on February 18 and the Assembly by 89-0 on February 23. Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), and Representative Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), in particular, championed the liability protections in the Legislature.
The law provides a civil liability exemption from COVID exposure claims for Wisconsin employers, governments, schools, and other entities as well as their employees, agents, and contractors. Now, entities cannot be held liable for ordinary negligence claims associated with a COVID infection; this civil immunity does not apply if an act or omission involves reckless or wanton conduct or intentional misconduct. The immunity applies retroactively to claims accruing on or after March 1, 2020, except for actions filed before the bill took effect. A comprehensive COVID-19 response bill vetoed by Gov. Evers in early February included the same liability language.
Act 4 is the result of a special session of the Legislature called by Gov. Evers following his State of the State address in January. Referencing the massive influx of unemployment claims that the state has received since last March, the governor claimed that an “antiquated system” and burdensome rules were the main causes of the resulting backlog of claims and long delays in processing time. The governor ordered the Legislature to convene a special session to take up his proposed changes to the UI system. While the Legislature approved parts of the governor’s proposal, it removed a $5.3 million appropriation for the project and several other provisions.
The new law requires the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), which administers the UI program, to begin updating the information technology systems used for processing and paying UI claims. DWD is required to issue a request for proposals within 30 days and to begin the project by June 30. To fund the project, DWD can request supplemental funding or a transfer of funding from the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance or get funds through the Department of Administration’s master lease program. The governor can also use emergency procurement waivers to expedite the update process. Separately, in his 2021-23 budget proposal, the governor included $79 million for DWD to upgrade its UI technology.
Act 4 also includes the following changes to the state’s UI system:
- Extends, until March 14, 2021, the suspension of the one-week waiting period for UI benefits.
- Extends, until March 13, 2021, the noncharging of unemployment benefits to employers’ accounts for UI claims related to the COVID public health emergency.
- Requires DWD to presume that an initial claim for benefits beginning on or after March 15, 2020 through March 13, 2021 is related to the COVID public health emergency.
- Extends the applicability of the temporary modification of certain requirements for work-share plans until July 4, 2021, or the conclusion of the president’s emergency declaration on COVID, whichever is sooner.
- Allows DWD to waive the “off” period between periods of federal extended unemployment benefits until June 30, 2021.