Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday, July 14, announced plans to spend $130 million in federal stimulus funds to help unemployed individuals find work and address ongoing workforce shortage challenges across the state that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement comes two weeks after Evers vetoed a GOP-authored bill that sought to eliminate Wisconsin's participation in enhanced federal unemployment benefits, which provide unemployed individuals with an extra $300 per week. Republicans and some of the state's largest business groups have pushed to eliminate the enhanced benefits, which they've said creates a disincentive to work.

During a news conference at Green Bay's TitletownTech innovation center, Evers laid out his own plan for addressing workforce shortage issues, which he noted were present in the state long before the pandemic took hold. Under that plan, $100 million would go toward a workforce innovation program that would offer up to $10 million in grants to at least 10 local and regional collaborations that develop initiatives to help employers and workers connect.

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"Wisconsin is bouncing back, but we can't take our foot off the gas now and these investments will help get folks back to work and help our families and communities recover faster," Evers said.

Another $20 million would be allocated to the state Department of Workforce Development to administer a worker advancement initiative to provide subsidized employment and skills training with local employers.

The final $10 million announced Wednesday will create a worker connection program to assist individuals attempting to find work and reduce barriers preventing full participation in the workforce.

"Helping employers expand their candidate pools and tackling barriers to employment will make a significant and lasting impact on communities, which will offer Wisconsinites greater opportunities for generations to come," DWD secretary Amy Pechacek said in a statement.

Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. secretary Melissa Hughes said the $100 million grant program could support a wide range of initiatives including addressing child care needs or transportation barriers or those that create pilot programs.

"We're really looking for creativity, we're looking for innovation but mostly we're looking for collaboration," Hughes said.

Evers said the grant program could launch as early as this fall.

After the state's unemployment rate skyrocketed to about 14% in April 2020 due to the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns or restrictions on several industries, it began to slowly fall last year. As of May, the unemployment rate was 3.9% — near the 3.5% rate in February 2020, according to the state Department of Workforce Development.

In recent months, Republicans and some of the state's largest business organizations have taken aim at the state's participation in enhanced federal unemployment benefits, which are slated to run through Sept. 6, as creating a disincentive to work and exacerbating the ongoing workforce shortage. Democratic lawmakers and some business groups have defended the benefits as much-needed assistance to those who are unable to find work or are reluctant to return to the workforce amid the ongoing pandemic.

Congress implemented a $600 boost to unemployment benefits shortly after the pandemic began. That amount was later reduced to $300 in weekly unemployment benefits, in addition to the state's maximum weekly benefit of $370.

Evers proposed in his 2021-2023 biennial budget spending $9.7 million to create 48 full-time positions for a customer-centric worker pilot program within DWD to help individuals overcome barriers and obtain employment.

The proposal was stripped from the governor's budget by Republicans, who control the state budget committee.

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