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Evers shows DWD chief the door

Empower Wisconsin | Sept 18, 2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers’ Department of Workforce Development secretary Caleb Frostman is stepping down after the agency he led failed to timely process unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Wisconsinites.

Caleb Frostman turned in his resignation Friday, according to Evers. It wasn’t a choice.

The governor asked for Frostman’s resignation, according to a press release. It’s effective immediately. Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Amy Pechacek will lead the transition until the new secretary is appointed.

“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.

The Democrat went on to point out the historic levels of claims the state’s unemployment system has experienced amid the pandemic and, really, the Evers administration’s decision to shut down much of the state and its economy. Per usual, the partisan attacked the Republican-led Legislature for an Unemployment Insurance system “hindered in part by antiquated technology we inherited, and processes designed by Republicans to make it harder for folks to get these benefits.”

But anybody who has really been watching, really talking to the tens of thousands of claimants waiting for help for months knows that Frostman and his boss had no plan to deal with a flood of claims forced by stay-at-home orders. Frostman has been widely criticized for not meeting staffing needs, not properly deploying internal resources, and generally not being up to the challenges he faced.

Still, Evers stood by his man — until he could stand no more.

As Wisconsin Spotlight exclusively reported Friday, the governor gave his DWD Secretary an attaboy for his handling of one high profile UI claim even as hundreds of thousands of first-time claimants were experiencing busy signals, hours-long waits and rude customer service agents.

It was Evers’, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” moment.

“FYI, thanks to your staff,” Evers wrote to Frostman in an April 7 email, forwarding on a compliment about the agency’s resolution of a claim for an out-of-work Barneveld restaurant owner who had made national headlines for removing prices from his menu.

That was great news, Frostman quickly wrote back. He told the governor that DWD was continuing to “expand capacity and work out kinks in our IT and Telecom infrastructure.”

And then he told Evers something that was — and would become more so — patently false.

“(E)very piece of feedback from constituents who have interacted with our staff has been immensely positive,” Frostman said.

Wisconsin Spotlight has featured the stories of several claimants caught in the DWD morass, some on the verge of eviction.

In his press release, Evers took credit for providing additional staffing resources to the DWD “to assist with the substantial influx in claims, calls, and adjudication processes.” More than 130 DWD employees have been reassigned to the Unemployment Insurance Division, the governor said. In total, the DWD now has more than 1,500 individuals working on UI cases, a 250 percent increase from 600 individuals previously.

This week, the state Department of Administration sent out an urgent request seeking additional state employees to assist with Unemployment Insurance adjudication and fraud investigations for six months, beginning Oct. 5. 

“Each agency has been asked to find volunteers willing to take on this critical assignment to help our fellow citizens in a very challenging financial time,” according to an email obtained by Empower Wisconsin. 

For too many, those efforts have been too little, too late.

State Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), a vocal critic of Evers’ and DWD’s handling of the unemployment crisis, said it’s about time.

“Governor Evers’ administration and the leadership at DWD have been failing the people of Wisconsin since March with legislative Republicans recommending this action months ago,” Kapenga said Friday in a statement.

“There is no doubt this leaves another stain directly on Governor Evers’ ability to choose qualified leaders in his administration. I hope for the sake of the nearly 100,000 people who haven’t received their unemployment checks that the new Secretary-designee fixes this disaster quickly.”

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