Empower Wisconsin | May 22, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — An attorney in state government with inside knowledge of the Department of Workforce Development’s failings with unemployment claims tells Empower Wisconsin the problems are even worse than reported.
“It is incompetence of leadership,” said the state employee who asked not to be identified because of his sensitive position within state government. “They cannot find a focus, they cannot prioritize skills. They’re out there grabbing at straws. Even after they pull the trigger, they try to pull it back.”
DWD was clearly swamped by a flood of unemployment claims in the opening weeks of Gov. Tony Evers’ emergency state-wide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But as the weeks dragged on and hundreds of thousands forced out of work rightfully sought unemployment benefits, DWD failed to adjust. It struggled to fill positions to even take incoming calls, let alone investigate and process claims.
As Wisconsin Spotlight reported, unemployment claimants have waited as long as nine weeks for unemployment checks that have yet to arrive. Amanda Worley, a waitress from Green Bay, last week said she was down to $7.94 in her bank account as she struggled through a bureaucratic maze and hours upon hours of unanswered DWD phone calls. Worley on Thursday said that, after nearly 10 weeks of delays and duplicate forms, DWD finally processed and deposited her first payment. She said she doesn’t think that would have happened without the assistance of lawmakers like Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay) and Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) intervening on her behalf, and Wisconsin Spotlight shining a light on her problems.
The attorney who spoke with Empower Wisconsin Thursday said he and several other state employees who work in other agencies were asked by DWD management to assist in claims management. Some attorneys were even requested to work call center phones. He said he and the other employees gladly accepted. They were originally told to report to DWD, but just as suddenly Workforce Development managers told them their services wouldn’t be needed.
And still the logjam of claims goes on.
“It’s shocking to me. I’ve talked to 10, maybe a dozen people who work for the state. They are all willing to help. Nobody is above this,” the source said. “They are really frustrated with the lack of leadership and what they basically see are some easy solutions that anyone who has been a manager for more than a month would be able to prioritize and allocate resources.”
More frustrating, DWD could be tapping into state employees in agencies with less pressing work — or employees who aren’t working at all.
As Wisconsin Spotlight reported this week, the Evers administration wants to pay limited-term employees to stay at home and not work.
“We have people begging to go back to work, and employers begging people to work for them,” said sate Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) in a statement. “Governor Evers just released an emergency rule paying people for literally doing nothing. This isn’t work from home. That would be one thing, and understandable. This is don’t work from home, don’t go to your job site, don’t worry – we’ll still pay you.”
DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman said the agency is trying to hire more workers to manage a backlog of at least 140,000 unemployment claims.
“We have about 100 or 125 adjudicators currently working,” Frostman said. “We’re hoping to hire a number more, probably about 100 hires.”
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s jobless rate soared to 14.1 percent, the highest level since the Great Depression. It was 3.1 percent in March. The Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison earlier this week estimated the state’s unemployment rate at 16.2 percent, with over a half-million unemployment claims since March.
While these are unprecedented times and mass unemployment has put incredible stress on DWD resources, the state attorney who spoke to Empower Wisconsin said he’s not sure why the governor and Frostman aren’t looking to all state agencies to help.
“Think of DNR (Department of Natural Resources). How many calls do they get in the summer? And they’ve got a huge call center,” he said. “This (DWD) isn’t the only place where they process payments and answer phones.”