By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — When Gov. Tony Evers finally gave Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman his walking papers on Sept. 18, 2020, DWD was an absolute mess.
Tens of thousands of out-of-work Wisconsinites had been waiting on their unemployment checks for months. Most got busy signals or voicemails or were left on hold for hours when they called the agency. The lucky ones who got through were subjected to the kind of incompetence, incivility and unacceptable customer service you’d find in a Taliban-operated call center.
A year and a half after COVID-19 and Evers’ disastrous lockdown orders unleashed a flood of unemployment claims, lawmakers are still taking calls from constituents about delayed or frozen claims because they can’t get through to DWD.
DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek prematurely declared victory in late December, reporting that the backlog of the mountain of unprocessed unemployment claims had been cleared. Many, however, remain stuck in adjudication limbo, where so many eligible claims went to die.
After a damning report by the Legislative Audit Bureau, Pechacek in early January wrote a letter to the Co-Chairs of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee noting that 5,153 disputed claims were waiting to be resolved.
But the numbers didn’t add up. The Audit Bureau’s most recent review in July found DWD was significantly less efficient in resolving claims. In January 2020, DWD had resolved more than 95 percent of cases, while in January 2021, the rate was less than 20 percent. It dropped from there from February to April, according to the audit.
The Audit Bureau found DWD failed to comply with federal regulations on unemployment appeals over the one-year period between June 2020 and May 2021. The vast majority of appeals were concluded within 45 days. One claimant, according to the report, started an appeal about the time Frostman was forced out but did not receive a hearing until March. Even after the six-month wait, the claimant did not receive the benefits owed for six weeks.
Stan Johnson, Project Management and Training coordinator for ACE Building Service in Manitowoc, said he had all kinds of trouble connecting with DWD on behalf of an employee who had been waiting for his unemployment payments. He was told by a DWD customer service representative that it was useless to call because of the backlogs.
“He was waiting for weeks and was getting nowhere,” Johnson told Empower
Wisconsin. It took the intervention of state lawmakers, including Sen. Andre Jacque (R- De Pere) to get the employee his benefits.
Evers and his dysfunctional agency have long blamed the Republican-led Legislature for not providing funding to upgrade DWD’s “antiquated” IT system. They hammer that message on the department’s website.
“DWD is working to implement these new Unemployment Insurance provisions, but our antiquated computer system does not allow all of these programs to be launched at once. Our IT programmers must complete extensive software coding for each program, then deploy them one at a time. A modernized system would allow for faster, simultaneous implementation of these programs,” the agency asserts.
What it doesn’t mention is the press release on federal COVID relief funding is that the governor could have used a portion of the billions of dollars to fix the system.
What it also doesn’t note is that many of the problems have everything to do with incompetence and failed leadership in the Evers administration. Like in so many other challenges facing the state, the governor failed to see the impacts of his restrictive policies and was slow to respond or responded inadequately after the crisis hit.
“It’s Evers’ Afghanistan. All they can do is point fingers at everybody else,” said state Rep. Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), whose office has helped several unemployment insurance applicants the benefits owed to them.
A year after Evers fired Frostman to help cover his own failures, Brandtjen said too many Wisconsinites facing unemployment have lost confidence in the DWD.
“It’s fair to say it has been completely unacceptable the way the department has been run,” the lawmaker said.