Wisconsin Unemployment Agency Delivering Unhappy Holidays

M.D. Kittle, MADISON — As the holidays approach, thousands of Wisconsinites are still waiting for their Unemployment Insurance benefits to come through months after they first applied.

Now, Gov. Tony Evers’ interim Department of Workforce Development secretary is saying she hopes to have much of the unemployment backlog cleared by the New Year.

The new goal, after the last disgraced DWD chief said the mountain of claims would be settled by last month, isn’t much consolation for claimants who have been waiting since July. Like Shelli Wodsedalek.

The Manitowoc tax professional this week posted on the Wisconsin Unemployment Facebook page that her frustration is growing.

“In my 25+ years of employment, this is my first time filing for UI. I was laid off in July, I followed all the rules (I even took the time to read EVERYTHING), and yet I’ve been in adjudication because I was unavailable for my very (as in 8 hours/month) part-time job the last week in June because I was working nearly 60-hours that week at my regular job,” she wrote.

“This is crazy. Nearly 3 decades of employers paying in to UI on my behalf, and I can’t seem to even get one penny from it. I hate this,” Wodsedalek added.

Amy Pechacek was left with the Unemployment Insurance mess when Evers asked DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman to step down in October. During Frostman’s brief tenure, the agency was buried under a backlog of unemployment claims in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in March and Evers’ statewide lockdown. DWD repeatedly failed to even answer the incoming calls from frustrated claimants, let alone settle claims in anywhere near a timely fashion.

Wisconsin Spotlight has detailed the heartbreaking stories of Wisconsinites forced to wait four, five, six months and longer to get paid.

The delays continue.

While DWD reports 93.7 percent of the 8.2 million-plus weekly jobless claims that have come in since mid March have been processed, more than 70,000 claimants are awaiting resolution. Most of those are trapped in the morass of adjudication, where claims are approved or denied.

A state audit in late September underscored the dysfunction inside DWD’s Unemployment Insurance division.

Among the alarming findings by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, 93.3 percent of the 41.1 million phone calls made to DWD’s call centers during this year’s flood of unemployment claims were blocked or received busy signals. That’s 38.3 million unanswered calls between March 15 and June 30, the height of Unemployment Insurance applications following Evers’ COVID-19 state-wide lockdown that cost hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites their jobs.

Some 6.2 percent of the calls were abandoned by claimants calling into the DWD, according to the audit.  So only 0.5 percent of calls were ultimately answered.

Pechacek this week told the Wisconsin State Journal DWD’s partnership with Google will help remove 103,000 holds on backlogged claims and bring relief to 21,000 people waiting for state Unemployment Insurance. Another 50,000 claimants will receive updates to their filings as the claims move toward resolution, the news outlet reported.

The agency’s partnership with Google Cloud, launched in October, is expected provide expedited review of UI and federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims to assist in processing claim payment determinations, according to the agency.

State Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) said he’s pleased to see the use of technology to assist in the backlog, but he wants to see results.

“Goals don’t mean a whole lot unless they happen,” said Jacque, chairman of the Senate Committee on Local Government, Small Business, Tourism and Workforce Development.

He noted that Wisconsin was the last in the nation to start paying out federally funded unemployment benefits, a problem that exposed DWD’s failure to prepare.

While Evers has blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature for not providing funding to upgrade the Unemployment Insurance division’s integrated technology, the governor sought no funding for a system revamp in his first budget, and DWD did not note the need in its latest budget request.

“Wisconsin was not uniquely situated in terms of IT programming,” Jacque said. “It’s clear that it was not just a function of the IT system, it was a problem with leadership and direction in the department and in the governor’s office.

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