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Wisconsin Spotlight | Dec. 15, 2020

MADISON — A new audit by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) underscores the dysfunction at Gov. Tony Evers’ Department of Workforce Development. The agency’s Unemployment Insurance Division has left tens of thousands of out-of-work Wisconsinites waiting and wondering — some on the brink of financial ruin —  when they’ll receive their unemployment pay.

LAB’s audit lays bare DWD’s many failures, including the fact the agency did not resolve issues with claims “even though it had the information to do so and because DWD had not requested information it needed from individuals and employers.”

As of Oct. 10, the audit bureau found DWD had paid 483,504 of the 662,731 individuals (74.5 percent) that had filed initial unemployment claims for regular state UI benefits since March 15. The remaining 25 percent had not been paid because DWD had denied their claims or had yet to resolve them, according to the report.

But as Wisconsin Spotlight has reported, DWD has mistakenly denied many claims only to approve them later, at times with the intervention of state lawmakers and other advocates.

The audit found that DWD paid 53.2 percent of initial state claims within two calendar weeks or less, but it took more than five weeks to pay 25 percent of them. Thousands have waited two months and longer to have their claims settled, Wisconsin Spotlight investigations have found.

While it faced a tsunami of UI claims after the pandemic struck in March, the Evers administration was slow to deal with the economic consequences of COVID-19 and the statewide lockdowns it ordered.

Although DWD increased the number of adjudicators from 175 during the week of March 15, to 563 during the week of Sept. 20, the audit bureau found 96,623 individuals still had claims in adjudication as of Oct. 10. The agency waited two months after the coronavirus hit to begin mass hiring.

“The audit confirms what the flood of phone calls to legislative offices suggested – DWD is failing to provide the service government is supposed to provide for a substantial number of claimants,” said State Rep, Samantha Kerkman (R- Salem Lakes). “The department was overwhelmed from the very beginning of the Governor’s stay-at-home order – why on earth would they wait until May to increase staffing? This is disturbing and unacceptable.”

LAB looked into the cases of 268 individuals who filed initial claims for state UI benefits from March 15 through April 11, but had not been paid since June. While DWD had resolved all but 18 of those claims by November, the agency was responsible for 11 of the 13 weeks it took, on average, to resolve the claims of the 250 individuals.

Brittney Gitzlaff, was among those ranks. The Menomonee Falls mother of three young children filed for UI in March after she was forced to stay at home to take care of her kids when Evers shut down Wisconsin’s schools. She was still waiting for DWD to get its act together in mid-October.

At one point, Gitzlaff, told Wisconsin Spotlight, a DWD adjudicator asked her if her 8-year-old daughter could watch her younger siblings so that she could go back to work.

A state audit released in September found 93.3 percent of the 41.1 million phone calls made to DWD’s call centers during this year’s flood of unemployment claims were blocked or received busy signals. That’s 38.3 million unanswered calls between March 15 and June 30, the height of Unemployment Insurance applications following Evers’ COVID-19 state-wide lockdown that cost hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites their jobs.

Some 6.2 percent of the calls were abandoned by claimants calling into the DWD, according to the audit.  So only 0.5 percent of calls were ultimately answered.

LAB’s latest audit shows DWD failed to seek basic information from claimants and employers, and in some cases the agency had the information necessary to resolve claims but failed to use it.

“There is absolutely no excuse for the disaster that is going on at the Department of Workforce Development,” said state Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee. “This nonpartisan audit sheds light on the real problems causing significant delays in payments to the unemployed — that’s the Administration’s inability to step up during a time of need.”

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee will hold a hearing on LAB’s reviews of the UI program on Wednesday at the State Capitol.

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