MADISON — A new report shows Gov. Tony Evers’ incompetent Department of Workforce Development has failed on two critical fronts: Getting unemployment checks to eligible claimants and protecting the state’s Unemployment Insurance system from fraud and waste.
As Wisconsin Spotlight has reported, DWD’s bungling forced tens of thousands out-of-work Wisconsinites to wait months for their benefits after a flood of claims hit the system last year.
“Wisconsin was one of the worst performing states across many different metrics,” the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) study finds.
The report — “The (Poor) Performance of the Unemployment System During COVID-19 in the United States and (Especially) Wisconsin” — also notes the Evers administration has failed to check fraudulent activity. Amid growing reports of rampant fraud, the fraud detection rate has plummeted to near zero, with detected fraud cases down 41 percent as claims have exploded.
“While payments have been slower, they have not been more accurate,” the report notes. “Further, although the payment rate in Wisconsin has fallen, overpayments have increased.”
Payment rate plummets
Since March 2020, Wisconsin has had one of the lowest payment rates in the nation, ranking 5th out of the 48 states with accurate data, according to the report.
“But its pool of workers has changed less, suggesting that the low payment rates are due more to problems processing claims,” the report states.
In Wisconsin, nearly 30 percent of first unemployment payments were delayed more than 70 days, the 8th highest rate among states, according to Noah Williams, founding director of the economic research center. Wisconsin’s continued claims also had delayed payments at more than double the national rate.
A state audit of initial claims which had been filed but not paid, “…found that it took an average of 13 weeks to resolve those initial claims, with the most common reasons for delays involving instances when DWD had not resolved issues despite having all the necessary information to do so.”
The problems continued into the new year. While then-President Trump signed an extension of federal benefits in December, the Evers administration failed to issue payments until early March. Payments for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) were delayed even longer.
The waiting game
The stories of the people trapped in DWD’s dysfunctional unemployment system are heart-breaking.
Brittney Gitzlaff waited more than eight months for her payments. The mother of three young children had to leave work last year to take care of her kids while they were forced to attend school online. Under emergency rules, workers who have to provide care to a loved one because of COVID-19 are eligible for unemployment benefits. DWD finally relented after lawmakers intervened on her behalf.
“It’s disgusting that it took 20 emails and two hand-delivered letters to the governor for Brittney to get what she was owed,” state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) said.
The governor and fellow Democrats have blamed Republicans for not funding a fix to the Unemployment Insurance system’s old technology that slowed claims processing.
But DWD’s problems went well beyond tech. The Evers administration failed to have a plan in place to deal with the explosion of claims that followed the governor’s lockdowns.
Failed fraud detection
On the other end of the spectrum, DWD failed to check fraud and overpayments in the state’s unemployment system. Fraud detection essentially has stopped.
“While fraud appears to have grown, the UI system has largely stopped detecting it,” the report states.
Pre-pandemic, the fraud detection rate was about 2.7 percent nationally and about 1.7 percent in Wisconsin, according to Williams. Since the onset of the pandemic, the detection rates have dropped to near zero.
“It’s concerning that we kind of shift from one problem to another,” said state Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), a member of the Senate’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee. “People have to wonder why this department can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”