Empower Wisconsin | Aug. 7, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The debacle that is Gov. Tony Evers’ Department of Workforce Development has been trying to do some damage control to cover up widespread incompetence in its Unemployment Insurance division.
Agency officials apparently have been telling some in the media that it has handled all but a handful of claims from March, when a flood of Wisconsinites were first forced out of work by COVID-19 and Evers’ statewide lockdown began filing for jobless benefits.
A perusal of state legislative files and individual posts on the Wisconsin Unemployment Support Group Facebook page, however, shows DWD’s boast doesn’t hold water. Three Legislative offices alone tell Empower Wisconsin they are dealing with dozens of constituents waiting for resolution to claims filed in March.
“I applied for UI in March, was denied in April. So I applied for PUA (federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) on April 21st. The other day I got this letter in the mail stating I’m denied PUA because I may be eligible for UI. So now I’m in the appeal process,” wrote a follower of the online support group.
DWD is “playing games with the numbers,” one legislative aide told Empower Wisconsin.
In one case, a West Allis man named Joseph applied for Unemployment Insurance on March 4.
“He has had an extremely difficult time getting correct information from UI,” states a constituent assistance report from state Sen. Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield). In late June, Joseph spoke with a DWD representative over the phone and was informed that he had been denied. The claimant was never notified and his dashboard did not note the fact that his claim was rejected.
“He is growing increasingly concerned about his housing situation because he can only show his landlord his dashboard which continues to show that he has a pending claim, and he believes that his landlord will not be patient very much longer for him,” the report states.
A New Berlin man named Reginald lost his job on March 11. He applied for UI benefits right away and has been “stuck in adjudication.” While he appears to have everything in order, he still is waiting on federal assistance, plus six months of back state Unemployment Insurance payments.
“He is facing eviction and thankfully his landlord is giving him the chance to get the money. Sounds like next month his landlord is going to file the eviction notice. Also has young children,” legislative file notes state.
And a single mom of 3 is on the verge of losing her apartment. She first applied for Unemployment Insurance on March 13. She heard nothing from DWD. She went back to work in May, starting out half time and eventually moving to full-time. Her case is still under review. As of Monday, she had heard nothing from the agency.
DWD officials did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment.
Empower Wisconsin has learned the agency is spending a month or more training staff members to review claims, which may in part answer why tens of thousands of displaced Wisconsinites are still waiting for claims resolution.
DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman has been in full spin mode of late, boasting about his agency’s accomplishments and bashing the Republican-controlled U.S.Senate for not finalizing a spending package that would extend enhanced unemployment funding.
“We’re watching negotiations out in D.C. for any extension or replacement very closely,” Frostman said in a Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce briefing, according to Wispolitics.com. “We’ve advocated for the extension of the $600-a-week benefit, understanding that it’s temporary in nature.”
“Having up to 10 percent of the workforce living on a maximum of $370 per week is a “pretty grim prospect,” Frostman added. He did not mention that his agency’s myriad failures at one point left more than 140,000 people without any unemployment benefits, many for months.
He’s optimistic his staff can clear the hefty backlog of claims that remain.
“Since March, we have essentially quadrupled our UI personnel resources,” he said.
As Wispolitics reported, DWD went from 500 people working on UI to just over 2,000 people in the last four and a half months. The department added 450 adjudicators and expanded phones from 60 in March to 800 today.
Yet, legislative offices say they continue to hear from constituents who can’t get through to claims processors in what remains a frustrating disconnect between bureaucracy and claimant.