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WEDC working through flood of ‘essential business’ requests

Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. chief Missy Hughes says her employees are “working through the process” of deciding which businesses are essential after seeing a rapid increase web traffic contributed to a crash of organization’s site.

“This is a hard conversation,” she said on March 25 during a webinar viewed by business leaders. “Everybody wants to be essential, and everybody is essential.”

After the order was announced, the WEDC website received an “extraordinary spike” in traffic and crashed for several hours. David Callender, WEDC spokesman, said nearly 2,000 information requests about essential-business status have been received by the site, and noted agency staff are “swamped” by the workload.

“I’m going to say honestly that the turnaround time right now is rough, because we have gotten a number of inquiries,” Hughes said.

On a typical day, Callender said, the WEDC site logs around 1,000 sessions, each of which can include more than one page view and interaction. Callender said yesterday’s session number “may have cleared 100,000 by the end of the day.” The agency is asking businesses that learn on their own that they are essential not to reach out for confirmation.

Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order includes a long list detailing which businesses qualify as essential and which must close down until April 24, when the order expires.

During the call, Hughes acknowledged the order “came fast and furious yesterday.” She said the agency built its list of essential businesses using a model developed in Ohio, concentrating on companies that “need to stay standing” for the economy to keep working.

She encouraged businesses to “take the time to read the order” if their status is uncertain.

“It is a rare instance where someone who can’t find themselves in that list of businesses in the order is going to be deemed as essential,” she said.

Amid the onslaught of inquiries, Hughes said, the agency is trying to group similar requests together and respond to them in batches. She said many requests are from supply-chain companies that aren’t sure if they qualify as essential.

“If you’re supplying goods to a hardware store, to a health care facility, you’re in that supply chain,” she said. “Thinking about it that way and trying to understand where you flow into the system I think will be helpful for a lot of those questions coming in.”

Meanwhile, Congress was poised to approve a sweeping $2 trillion package designed to stimulate the economy and direct financial support to Americans hit hardest by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two Wisconsin senators, often at philosophical odds, joined the rare consensus.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin praised the proposal as “another strong step forward by Congress responding to the challenges we face in Wisconsin.”

“We need to continue working together across party lines to take additional steps to get through this public health crisis, stabilize our economy, and help it move forward,” the Madison Democrat said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said the legislation was “far from perfect” but added he backed it because it was “essential that Congress provide this support.”

Still, the Oshkosh Republican said the price tag was “pretty hard to swallow” and predicted the speed at which lawmakers moved to approve the legislation meant there would likely be “negative unintended consequences.”

“In this case, ‘not letting a crisis go to waste’ dramatically drove up the cost of the bill and provided funding for purposes not essential to address the current crisis,” he said.

The proposal is the largest in U.S. history, carrying a price tag that more than doubles the 2008 bank bailout as well as the subsequent 2009 economic stimulus.

It includes: $150 billion to bolster state and local governments; $100 billion in funding for hospitals; $350 billion in loans for small businesses to cover wages; and a $500 billion loan program for large businesses. It also boosts funding for unemployment insurance, provides tax incentives to businesses to keep redundant workers on the payroll and increases food assistance by $25 billion, among a host of other measures.

State officials also say they’re looking at additional aid. But they gave no firm schedule despite soaring unemployment numbers.

The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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