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License to delay: Evers’ next DWD fiasco?

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Adrienne O’Neil has been stuck in a professional Catch-22, trapped in the regulatory maze that is the state Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS). She’s been waiting eight months for her paperwork to clear so she can take the test required to achieve the professional status of Licensed Clinical Social Worker, but the agency bungled her paperwork and placed bureaucratic hurdles in her path.

The delays have cost her thousands of dollars, lots of lost time, and could soon put her out of work.

“I’ve missed out on so many different things. It’s so frustrating,” O’Neil told Empower Wisconsin. “I did my part of the work. How can they cash our checks (licensure fees) but be unable to do to anything?

O’Neil is one of the many professional victims of a licensing agency mired in a massive backlog and an apparent competency crisis. While DSPS officials have blamed the delays on antiquated technology, there’s a people and leadership problem at the Evers administration agency reminiscent of the state’s dysfunctional unemployment insurance system. Applicants say they’ve spent hours on hold waiting for a human being at DSPS to answer, the same horror stories experienced by thousands of unemployed Wisconsinites trapped in the Department of Workforce Development labyrinth. Lost paperwork, failure to return calls, incomprehensible bureaucratic hoops and hurdles. The same kind of customer service failures common at DWD are dogging DSPS, sources tell Empower Wisconsin.

Holding pattern

O’Neil submitted the necessary paperwork in order to take the LCSW exam. The Advanced Practice Social Worker had fulfilled her required hours of clinical service working at Milwaukee-area mental health care providers. She’s no rookie. O’Neil has more than a decade of experience in the field of mental health.

She was ready to advance her career. The Department of Safety and Professional Services stood in the way.

“I sent all my my paperwork in in July 2021. They said I should hear back in about three weeks. I waited and waited,” O’Neil said.

She called back in early September. When O’Neil finally reached an agent she was told they still couldn’t update her account. Upon subsequent calls, DSPS agents told O’Neil they didn’t have enough staff in the office. Many were working remotely, due to Gov. Tony Evers’ extended work-from-home orders for state employees.

O’Neil said she has called DSPS at least 60 times over the past eight months. Each time she was transferred to the division that oversees social workers. Without fail, she got a voicemail message. She asked to speak to a supervisor. No one responded.

In October, O’Neil applied for a social worker position in Colorado. She works on the front lines of substance abuse, a national crisis in desperate need of more licensed professionals. She got the job in Colorado, but since she has yet to acquire her LCSW license or Licensed Clinical Social Worker certificate, she earns less — to the tune of about $4,000.  More pressing, O’Neil said she has just weeks to take her exam and get her license switched over to Colorado’s state licensing system or she loses her job. She also could lose out on tens of thousands of dollars in higher education reimbursement.

“I’ve literally been in a holding pattern, nobody seems to know what’s going on,” the social worker said.

How much incompetence?

State Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) says he’s heard a litany of complaints about DSPS from constituents and professional organizations. Sortwell’s Assembly Regulatory Licensing Reform Committee has scheduled a hearing (10 a.m. March 16 at the Capitol) to learn more about the DSPS backlog and how it’s impacting businesses and employees statewide.

DSPS licenses and regulates more than 200 different types of credentials — from accountants and architects to welders and wholesale distributors of prescription drugs. The agency also provides centralized administrative services to nearly 100 boards, councils, and advisory committees. The boards, councils, and advisory committees have varying levels of responsibility and professional oversight based on statutory provisions.

It holds a lot of power over many of the state’s employers and employees, and the broader economy.

Sortwell is worried DSPS is another Department of Workforce Development fiasco in the making.

“I’m concerned this might be about whoever Gov. Evers is hiring, or not hiring, that we don’t have competent people heading up these agencies,” the lawmaker said “They are taking so long to process these (licenses), we’re losing a lot of employees to other states. People can’t wait six months to get their licenses.”

Sortwell fears the delays only worsen Wisconsin’s worker shortage crisis, particularly in fields like health care.

As Wisconsin Spotlight has extensively reported, Evers’ DWD forced tens of thousands of out-of-work Wisconsinites to wait months for their unemployment benefits following the governor’s pandemic lockdown orders. It took some claimants a year or more to cut through the red tape.

The Democrat governor blamed old technology for that debacle, pointing at Republicans in the Legislature for not providing enough funding. But Evers failed to have a plan in place to deal with the flood of unemployment claims in the wake of his stay-at-home orders. He was slow to move state workers at other departments to assist DWD. Evers finally fired his DWD secretary after six months of dysfunction, but records obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight show the governor had limited contact with the leader.

It’s not clear just how deep the backlog goes. DSPS officials did not return Empower Wisconsin’s requests for comment. The agency has said it issues an average of 13,000 licenses each month.

Sortwell said agency leadership provided an “optimistic view” of the situation to the Licensing Reform Committee earlier in the session. They talked about the old computer system and that they were making progress.

“We wanted to know the historical trends. Is this happening because a lot more people are applying or is this incompetence?” Sortwell said. “Is this because they lost employees? How many people are working remotely instead of coming into the office?”

The committee expects to receive updated answers to those questions at next week’s hearing.

DSPS Secretary-designee Dawn Crim has been widely criticized by lawmakers and industry groups for the problems plaguing the agency.

Sortwell said he’s spoken to several professional advocacy groups about the delays. In licensed security, for instance, applicants are now waiting four times as long for licenses as they did two years ago.

A first year neuropsychology post-doctoral fellow at the Milwaukee VA wrote Sortwell’s office that she had submitted her paperwork for licensure on August 31, 2021. Her check was cashed almost immediately and then she heard nothing nor was she able to get ahold of anyone about the status of her application to even know how long it would take to process. In October, she decided that since she had not heard from anyone, she was going to pursue licensure in another state. She applied for licensure in Iowa and within 24 hours of completing their application process, she had approval to take the EPPP (Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology), and passed on January 4.

“The application process for Iowa was incredibly streamlined using an entirely online portal system instead of having to mail and email in forms, I was actually able to get ahold of someone,” the psychologist wrote in the March 4 letter. “I finally received approval to take the EPPP on February 23, 2022. Once I received my email from Wisconsin last week, I sent them an email saying that I was not pursuing licensure in this state anymore. I hope that they will refund my money, but I doubt they will.”

‘It’s the system that’s broken’

Documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin show a similar pattern: DSPS takes months to process and finalize license applications, but the agency is quick to cash applicants’ checks.

Such was the case for a Milwaukee-area counselor who waited four months for the agency to review her application and accompanying documents. The source, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, said she was charged three application fees totalling $180 because the agency claimed it had not received her payment.

Beyond the bungling, the counselor said the lack of communication was most discouraging. On one occasion, she said she waited on hold for more than six hours, only to be hung up on when the DSPS business day ended. That’s a haunting reprise of the kind of monster waits unemployment claimants dealt with at the Department of Workforce Development.

The applicant said the gridlock was broken when state Sen. Dale Kooyenga’s office got involved. The Brookfield Republican’s office tells Empower Wisconsin it has heard from several constituents stuck in the DSPS mess.

“What I couldn’t do in four months, the senator’s office and staff was able to remedy in two days,” she said, adding not everyone is so lucky.

“I’m concerned about my peers,” she said. “It’s the system that’s broken. What about my co-workers, my friends, everyone else fighting right now in the midst of this and the current mental health crisis.”

O’Neil, the social worker, said there is light at the end of the tunnel. DSPS gave her clearance to take the exam, but as of late last week the agency had not updated her account.

She said she has felt powerless in her bureaucratic Catch-22.

“It feels like you don’t have any control over the outcome,” O’Neil said. “If I knew then what I know now, I don’t know if I could have done untying differently. We need DSPS to work so we can do our jobs as social workers.”

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3 thoughts on “License to delay: Evers’ next DWD fiasco?

  • I’m still waiting on my LPC-IT application to be approved & my application was submitted on 6/24/21…it’s almost been a whole year since I’ve graduated with my Master’s degree in Counseling. I’ve contacted my local senator, taken off of work to drive to Madison’s office, sent countless emails, & been on hold on the phone for many hours without any movement on my application. DSPS finally reviewed my education materials in March, though are now claiming that my education doesn’t meet their requirements, despite it being a 90-credit Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, whom have been accredited nationally with CACREP for many years. I’m powerless & it’s heartbreaking that there are people who are out in our communities dying from suicide and overdose because there aren’t enough mental health providers available to provide services.

  • I had the DR sign paperwork for a disabled sticker for our car because my wife is in a wheelchair. The state sent the wrong thing, we filled out paperwork again and again didn’t get what we needed. We left WI on 1-1-22. So, we are without the disabled sticker and are in AZ for the winter. I wonder how long we will have to wait when we get back. And they want to control our health insurance and more!!!

  • When I moved to WI, I went through the process of getting my nursing license endorsed here. It took 5 month for a process that was supposed to take only a few weeks. I called 3 times to inquire as to the status of my renewal (of which the fees had already been cashed). I was told they were behind. Finally they said I needed to provide a statement of my personal time from when I left my previous job due to the move, until the present. Obviously I had not been working because I did not have my license. Nevertheless, they inquired about my personal life as to what I had been doing in the intervening months. So, I wrote in explaining what I had been doing. Then after several more weeks, I called again to ask, and he said “Oh, your license went through” I asked if they were ever going to tell me that. He did send me an email to that effect as we were on the phone. What a bunch of beaurocratic nonsense.

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