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Wisconsin Spotlight | June 15, 2020

MADISON — The mess at the Department of Workforce Development hasn’t gotten any better for thousands of unemployment filers like Jennifer Robertson, despite assurances from the government agency. 

The 49-year-old West Allis woman, rapidly losing everything she’s worked so hard for, marked “10 weeks of nothing” on Sunday. Robertson, a furloughed chef at a southeast Wisconsin college, applied for state unemployment benefits on April 6. 

She’s still waiting. 

Like so many displaced workers stuck in a dysfunctional system, Robertson is running out of time — and hope. 

“I’m on the brink of losing everything,” she said, sobbing. 

On Friday, right before she spoke to Wisconsin Spotlight, Robertson had a difficult conversation with her credit union. She’s trying to save her house, but she’s quickly running out of money to pay her mortgage. 

“I’m trying to keep optimistic and positive, I try not to get real down,” she said. “But I’m going through my belongings to sell stuff so I have some cash — clothes, shoes. Maybe I can make $5, $10, $15. 

“I’m going to lose everything because my state doesn’t give a shit about me,” she said. 

Voices of frustration 

While the Evers administration attempts to gloss over the shameful failure that is its Unemployment Insurance division and much of the mainstream media has stopped reporting on the problems, DWD remains a government fiasco. Robertson and so many others are proof of that fact. 

State files obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight include row after row of claimants waiting months for the benefits they applied for. These are the victims of the pandemic and the sweeping lockdowns the Evers administration put in place amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

At an Assembly hearing on DWD’s myriad problems, agency Secretary Caleb Frostman blamed outdated technology and state and federal laws for the problems. But documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin show there’s a people problem, more so a management problem, still plaguing the Unemployment Insurance division. The level of incompetence in many of the cases is astounding. 

The common denominator remains a bottleneck of calls and glacially slow response times. 

State Sen. Chris Kapenga grilled agency officials at the hearing. The Delafield Republican said during the crisis backlog, DWD should give up its “bankers’ hours” and become a seven-day-a-week operation. 

Kapenga has been daily tweeting the horror stories his office has received from frustrated constituents. 

“It’s been 11 weeks and I have heard nothing! No email, no call, or nothing by mail. I have called a total of over 700 times. HOURS OF CALLING. I finally talked to someone who told me absolutely nothing. They literally had no information for me,” one claimant told Kapenga’s office. 

“I am going on two months of not getting paid unemployment benefits. This is a terribly frustrating issue. Wisconsin needs to do better. DWD needs to do better. We don’t want to lose everything we have worked so hard for,” states another claimant. 

‘We’re going to lose everything’ 

Robertson says she sets her alarm for 7 a.m. every morning and goes through the fruitless pursuit of trying to reach someone, anyone at DWD. After calling and calling, and waiting and waiting, she frequently joins thousands of claimants who are dropped from a call center that shuts down at 4:30 p.m. 

“A month ago I got so frustrated I didn’t call for three days ,” she said. That led to regret, thoughts of what if … Maybe somebody from DWD would have picked up. 

The one call she did receive from the agency was from an employee who told her that a claims adjudicator was looking into Robertson’s job over a year ago at a restaurant. DWD had already told her that before. The government official offered no help, other than to tell Robertson to keep filing her weekly claim. 

The West Allis woman turned 49 a week ago Sunday, nine weeks to the day she first filed for unemployment. Now she’s worried she’ll have to give up her “fur babies,” her two dogs and cat that she rescued from shelters years ago. She said the only help she has received from state officials has been from staff at the office of Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield).

“People like me, we’re dwindling down on money. We’re going to lose everything. I’m going to lose everything I’ve worked for since I was 18 because of some stupid pandemic, and because our state isn’t helping,” Robertson said, sobbing. 

“I’m at a point now where I feel helpless and hopeless.” 

Here are just a few of the comments from frustrated claimants:

  I have been calling unemployment for weeks, sending information, etc. I was able to talk with someone twice, but I haven’t heard anything about my situation yet. Because I work for a private/non profit school, I don’t believe I qualify for regular unemployment, and I don’t even know if I will qualify for the federal PUA program. I’m not sure if I need to reapply, or wait, or if I was denied. I just need answers…I literally spent 6 hours yesterday calling over and over and over again, unable to get through.

  I now have four weeks of unemployment claims waiting for “Your issue is being reviewed by adjudication.”, since 3/26.  I believe the issue being adjudicated is a “Review of deductible income”.  I haven’t a clue what that might be.

— Over the last 6 weeks I have not been receiving unemployment because the unemployment office does not believe that I can work full time while I’m finishing my semester online. This process has been very frustrating because around 4 weeks ago I was contacted by the DWD, and they told me they would resolve the issue — they didn’t. This morning I waited for 2 1/2 hours on hold with them on the phone, only for them to tell me I called the wrong DWD department and that they could not help me. 

  It has now been 6 weeks since I initially applied for benefits and I have heard nothing. I have called over 20 times a day every day for the last 6 weeks, I’ve emailed multiple times and nothing has gone through. I am trying a different route because a colleague of mine said she was able to get the help she needed through you.

— I filed unemployment in March and still have not received pay. I’ve spent days calling and being unsuccessful getting through, and when I did get through to discuss my determination, I was told I was talking to the wrong department and they didn’t know how to help. I sent in my W2s weeks ago and I have tried to validate my information twice now because it seems the information keeps on getting lost. I still don’t even have a determined amount they’re paying me. 

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