By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Hope Imaizumi is one of a long line of professionals waiting in the long line of the bureaucratic disaster that is Gov. Tony Evers’ Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS).
Her written testimony to the Assembly’s Licensing Reform Committee underscores the crisis of a backlog impacting thousands of professionals and ultimately hitting the Badger State’s economy.
Imaizumi moved to Madison from Michigan in November. She’s been a licensed social worker for nearly six years. She’s been trying to obtain her reciprocal social work license in Wisconsin since August.
“While attempting to receive help and usher my application through the process, I found out that no one is able to respond to emails or phone calls. Movement on my application has only happened when I have gone into the office in Madison on 2 occasions, which does not feel efficient or safe during a pandemic,” Imaizumi wrote. “I have begun working in another field that doesn’t require a license or my expertise because of these delays. I am still hopeful to return to the social work field if my license is processed.”
The social worker on hold is among scores of professionals who shared their struggles with the Licensing Reform Committee. The panel held a hearing Tuesday to get to the bottom of the mountain backlogged license applications. The lengthy delays are costing time, money and, in some cases, the careers of people like Imaizumi.
Evers’ bureaucrats and Democrats on the committee blame the Republican-controlled Legislature for not authorizing enough positions for the agency. But the myriad complaints speak to the overarching problem of incompetency, lack of planning, and a dearth of leadership in another Evers administration agency.
“The current situation is creating chaos.” – Dennis Kaster, president of the American Physical Therapy Association.
Empower Wisconsin has obtained complaints from dozens of professionals — from psychologists and social workers to security professionals — who have experienced the same kinds of bureaucratic nightmares as the tens of thousands of jobless Wisconsinites stuck in Evers’ dysfunctional Department of Workforce Development. Many say DSPS left them on hold for hours, lost their paperwork, and failed to update their files. The story is the same over and over again: DSPS is quick to cash their checks, very slow to process their license applications.
“I’m deeply sorry the state of Wisconsin failed you for 14 months,” state Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), chair of Assembly Licensing Reform Committee, said to a Marinette County social worker who waited over a year for her license.
“These are not just statistics. These are real people who can’t go to work in the field of their choice,” Kyle Koenen, policy director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, testified at the hearing. WILL and conservative think tank the Badger Institute are calling on the Legislature to streamline Wisconsin’s broken licensing system and bring back and expand transparency and accountability at DSPS.
Michael Tierney, legislative liaison for the department, defended the agency and the Democratic governor he works for. He said DSPS in the 2019-21 fiscal year received more than double the number of license applications (122,000) as it did in the 2013-15 fiscal year (57,000). That has much to do with the mental health damage done by the pandemic and the lockdowns that accompanied it. Cases of Addiction, depression, and trauma have soared, and so has the need for mental health and social work professionals.
Tierney blames the Republican Legislature, particularly the Joint Finance Committee, for not granting the agency the authority to hire enough people to handle the backlog. He said the agency, which is predominantly funded through the credential fees it collects, should be able to use that money without the Legislature’s oversight.
“The Legislature needs to allow the fees people pay to be used for their intended purposes,” Tierney said. Several representatives from the professional associations who have heard an earful from their members agree.
While DSPS requested more help in the last two budgets, the agency did not seek additional funding after the Legislature passed and the governor signed the current biennial budget, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. DSPS certainly could have, and perhaps should have. Tierney acknowledges the most severe delays began after Evers signed the budget. Also left out of Tierney’s testimony is the fact that the state was dealing with a hiring freeze in 2020-21, as the pandemic dimmed initial revenue projections.
Evers, with billions of dollars in federal COVID aid at his disposal, stepped in to provide $10 million for staffing and upgrades to what agency officials assert is outdated computer and software systems. Of course, he could have done so long before.
Tierney testified the DSPS call center is averaging as many as 4,400 calls per week, topping out at 10,000 calls during a week in February The bureaucrat blasted the Legislature, saying only six employees staff the call center. Sortwell and other committee members pointed out that understaffing is a human resources problem. The Evers administration had the ability to move state employees in other agencies to assist DSPS in catching up with the backlog, just as it eventually did at the Department of Workforce Development.
More so, nearly 70 percent of the agency’s 252-employee workforce continues to work remotely under Evers’ questionable COVID mitigation policies. Sortwell said that seems like a potential productivity problem.
“An overwhelming majority of your staff is not coming into your office. You don’t think that’s contributing at all to your backlog?” he asked Tierney. The bureaucrat would only say DSPS customers don’t care where their licenses are being processed.
“I think the people waiting on their licenses may be less understanding,” Sortwell shot back.
Committee member Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) complained the hearing reinforced that the licensing backlog is a “manufactured crisis” that “can be easily remedied.”
“To call this a manufactured crisis is the Democrats adding insult to injury for people who have been forced out of their professions by the Evers administration’s lackadaisical attitude,” said a legislative source whose office has been inundated with DSPS complaints. “It could be easily remedied, by Evers. If they had requested staffing assistance from other agencies proactively, in anticipation of the very predictable ups and downs in license applications, we might not be here. Evers is more interested in fixing blame than fixing problems.”