Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 16, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — As out of-work Wisconsinites found themselves trapped in an Unemployment Insurance system nightmare, Gov. Tony Evers appears to have met with his Workforce Development chief just one time between March 1 and Sept. 18 — and that was to fire him.
Calendars and emails obtained by Empower Wisconsin show Evers called Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman on Sept. 18, and had scheduled briefings with other DWD and Unemployment Insurance Division staff on just two other occasions during the six-month period.
The documents suggest what many have suspected, that Evers has been a disconnected executive in one of the worst crises of the pandemic — the crush of Unemployment Insurance claims that swelled in the outbreak of COVID-19 and the administration’s subsequent lockdowns.
Evers’ calendars show the governor did clear portions of his schedule for an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and two hours of personal time on the rare days he was to meet with DWD officials.
The open records request sought “calendar events and files from Gov. Tony Evers’ calendar involving the Department of Workforce Development and any staff at DWD” between March 1, 2020 and Sept. 18, 2020. It also sought any emails to or from Gov. Tony Evers and any staff at DWD” over the period.
While there is a reference to a cabinet meeting with Frostman in emails, Evers’ legal counsel released just three calendar days that fit the request parameters. Evers had an Unemployment Insurance Discussion at the Executive Residence on June 6; he scheduled a DWD Briefing on Aug. 25; and had a call with Frostman, the DWD secretary at the time, on Sept. 18.
That was the day Evers asked for Frostman’s resignation. The secretary got the ax after six months of agency failures that kept tens of thousands of claimants waiting months for their Unemployment Insurance benefits.
Evers issued a press release that same day announcing Frostman’s immediate departure.
“People across our state are struggling to make ends meet, and it is unacceptable that Wisconsinites continue to wait for the support they need during these challenging times,” Evers said “We have continued to add additional state resources to support the DWD, but it is clear that we must have change if we are going to address these problems to get folks their benefits faster.”
It’s also clear that the governor had relatively few conversations with his DWD chief while the agency was failing so miserably.
“It’s shocking to know there wasn’t more attention by the administration or coordination between the governor’s office and the department to address what was clearly known to be a serious issue,” said state Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), chairman of the Senate Committee on Local Government, Small Business, Tourism and Workforce Development. “It shows the governor was out of touch on this issue until it was too late for many folks.”
The records request netted just three responsive email communications between Evers and Frostman.
On April 7, the governor sent an email asking Frostman to do a phone conference with Wisconsin tribal leaders to “discuss processes, etc.” for filing UI claims.
“(O)f course, there are rumors of the system not working, etc,” Evers wrote.
By that time displaced workers like Jennifer Robinson and tens of thousands like her were struggling even to reach DWD claims processors. Robinson and so many others would find themselves on the brink of financial ruin — some homeless, many maxing out their credit cards and depleting their savings accounts — waiting for the Unemployment checks they deserved.
As Wisconsin Spotlight previously reported, Evers’ team had nudged Frostman to help a restaurant owner featured in national news stories through the Unemployment Insurance maze.
When the restaurant owner’s UI claim went through, Evers in an April 7 email applauded the secretary for a job well done. Frostman responded in kind.
“That’s great news. Thank you for forwarding. We continue to expand capacity and work out kinks in our IT and Telecom infrastructure, but every piece of feedback from constituents who have interacted with our staff has been immensely positive,” Frostman wrote.
“Thank you for all you have done and are doing. I look forward to our cabinet call tonight. Hopefully everyone managed through a wholly bizarre and unsettling day in Wisconsin today,” Frostman wrote in his response to the governor, referring to what he and Team Evers painted as the horrors of in-person voting in Wisconsin’s April 7 spring election.
The records release comes as Evers faces a new round of criticism about his administration’s handling of Wisconsin’s unemployment crisis.
An audit released this week by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) lays bare DWD’s many failures, including the fact the agency did not resolve issues with claims “even though it had the information to do so and because DWD had not requested information it needed from individuals and employers.”
Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) said he doesn’t fault the agency for being caught off guard by the flood of unemployment claims in March.
“But the Evers’ administration’s failure to act, even when the ball was in their court for 2-3 months is beyond inexcusable – it’s almost criminal. How many people were forced into depression, or panic, how many people suffered because of their incompetence?” the senator said.