Empower Wisconsin | May 28, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman was on the hot seat Wednesday, defending a dysfunctional agency that has been slow to deal with a flood of unemployment insurance claims.
Asked how DWD has failed tens of thousands of applicants over the past 2 1/2 months, Caleb did what the average liberal bureaucrat would do: He blamed the agency’s failure on someone or something else.
It was a grand CYA performance by an Evers administration official, who, much like Gov. Tony Evers and the rest of his administration, has been thoroughly overwhelmed and overmatched by the COVID-19 crisis.
The problems “have been compounded by technological constraints,” Frostman said during Wednesday’s Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform hearing.
Frostman specifically blames DWD’s outdated COBOL-based computer system used to process claims.
His Dem defenders on the committee, particularly the ever-unpleasant and jowly Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Somers), who claimed DWD’s myriad failures are the Republicans’ ’fault.
“Let’s talk about Republican responsibility for these problems,” Wirch hissed. “Republicans controlled the purse strings, yet nothing was done for six years to update that antiquated technology.” The senator pointed to a 2014 audit which did note the inefficiencies of the system, but he failed to add that Democrats were in control of the Legislature and the executive branch for several years before Republicans and could have easily made the “50-year-old” system a priority then.
Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), called “B.S.” on the Dems’ narrative.
“I don’t want to hear another person say it’s all the Republicans’ fault. That’s completely false,” he said, pointing to DWD’s staffing troubles, its “bankers’ hours” of operation (until recently) between 7:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., its failures to respond to frustrated claimants, and its overall lack of leadership.
Frostman conceded a big part of the problem has been bringing on an adequate level of staffing. But 11 weeks after Evers began locking down the state, the agency still doesn’t have enough trained people in place. Frostman noted DWD’s outside contract to fill hundreds of call center positions and train case processors and adjudicators. But all that takes time, he said, time the agency did not have when the tsunami of calls and online applications for benefits began hitting the Unemployment Insurance division.
“We have done everything possible as quickly as possible to bring on as many people as we could,” said DWD Unemployment Insurance Administrator Mark Reihl.
Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), the committee’s chairman, said he understands the pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to government. But Nass said it’s as if Frostman and the administration never asked the “what if” question as the COVID-19 storm was hitting Europe and other parts of the United States and jobless rates began to rise.
“‘What if we get to 10 percent (unemployment)? What are we going to do?’ Nobody thought we might get to10 percent when we shut the state down. Unbelievable,” Nass told Frostman.
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate in April soared to 14.6 percent, numbers not seen since the Great Depression. Noah Williams, director of the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) at UW-Madison, testified Wednesday that the Badger State’s jobless rate may be closer to 17 percent or 18 percent, with 13 out of 72 counties topping 20 percent.
Frostman said his agency has transferred over scores of DWD staff members and employees from other government departments to assist the unemployment effort. An attorney in state government with inside knowledge of DWD staffing requests recently told Empower Wisconsin that he and several other state employees who work in other agencies were asked by supervisors to assist in claims management. They were originally told to report to DWD, but just as suddenly Workforce Development managers told them their services wouldn’t be needed.
“We have current state employees sitting there at home and paid not to work,” Kapenga said. “We’re not leveraging or utilizing employees properly.”
As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported, the Evers administration recently tried to sneak through a rule that pays some state employees for not working.
Despite the problems, Frostman and Reihl insist the agency is doing a “great job.”
Plenty of frustrated unemployment claimants may beg to differ.