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Wisconsin Spotlight | Jan. 15, 2021

Joshua Kuehn’s long wait for his unemployment benefits hit 300 days this week.

300 days.

The 42-year-old West Allis man applied for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) on March 17. He says the state Department of Workforce Development approved his claim in July, but, like so many thousands of out-of-work Wisconsinites, he heard nothing from the agency for months.

While the Evers administration pats itself on the back for cutting through much of the massive backlog of unemployment claims that flooded the inept DWD, thousands like Kuehn remain stuck in an administrative nightmare. And as Evers finally proposes funding to upgrade the Unemployment Insurance Division’s technology, Kuehn believes the administration failed to act when it mattered most.

“They saw a hurricane coming a month before it hit us,” he said. “They didn’t do anything to start prepping for it. Nothing was done until the eye of the storm was over us.”

Frustration and form letters 

Kuehn said his experiences with DWD are all the more frustrating because of his career path. He’s planning to go to Marquette University Law School next fall to pursue a degree in administrative law.

The married father of three was in his senior year at Wisconsin Lutheran College in March when the pandemic hit and Evers issued his first statewide lockdown order. Schools and businesses were forced to shut down. Kuehn lost his part-time pre-law tutoring position, and like hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites, applied for Unemployment Insurance.

And, like so many of his fellow claimants, he received little information or guidance from Workforce Development for months. Finally, on July 25, he was informed that his PUA claim had been adjudicated and approved.

And there it sat. And sat.

By October, the Kuehn family finances were getting extremely tight. Kuehn said he’s had to borrow some $20,000 from extended family to get his family through. His wife, who owns and operates a faith-based communications company, has seen revenue slide as many Lutheran churches were forced to function virtually during the fall COVID surge.

It was at that time that DWD officials informed him that he was told that because of an application glitch early on (he listed himself as a full-time student and not eligible for full-time work), his claim would now have to be re-adjudicated. This, after several agency officials told him they couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been paid

But even more frustrating was the failure of DWD supervisors to respond to his questions. Desperate, Kuehn said he reached out to the governor’s office. He got a form letter asking him to provide more information than he had to offer on his initial unemployment claim. He filled it out. That was a few days before Christmas. Kuehn said he’s heard nothing since.

“I don’t think that’s fair to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin when they email the governor’s office and they get nothing back but a form letter,” he said.

‘We’re being hurt’ 

He and his family made it through the holidays and are okay for now. But Kuehn said February is another question.

The state owes him thousands of dollars in back PUA benefits, Kuehn said. He’s sought help from one of his legislative representatives, Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who has intervened on Kuehn’s behalf.

DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek has been making the rounds in a media tour talking up the agency’s efforts to catch up on the backlog. She told media outlets this week that outstanding claims have declined from about 100,000 to around 5,000 since she took over for her predecessor, Caleb Frostman, whom Evers fired in October after six months of failure.

But for claimants like Joshua Kuehn the Department of Workforce Development has a long way to go. He fears a second wave of unemployed could put more people in his situation.

“I hope that the governor starts paying attention to this situation,” Kuehn said. “He’s always saying his focus is on making the people of Wisconsin better, but he really is not proving it by his actions. We’re being hurt and we need help.”

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