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Thursday, May 26th, 2022
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MADISON — In April 2020, a flood of unemployment claims exposed the incompetence and dysfunction in Gov. Tony Evers’ Department of Workforce Development. Two years, later, DWD still is lagging far behind in paying claims — despite record-low unemployment.

“In February 2022 nearly 7% of first unemployment payments were delayed more than 8 weeks. Delays are still elevated at a time when UI claims have fallen below pre-pandemic levels,” Noah Williams, founding director of the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) recently reported.

While 7 percent is a marked improvement from the 50 percent during DWD’s debacle in 2020, and the 25 percent claims-proccessing delays of eight weeks-plus for much of 2021, the rate is a miserable failure compared to low or average unemployment times over the past decade.

Williams’ review shows delays of more than two months were lower than 1 percent, often much lower than that, during Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure.

The Evers administration blamed antiquated technology and historic unemployment claims during the first year and a half of the pandemic for massive backlogs. But last week the agency posted 4,650 initial unemployment claims, three times less than the 16,463 first-time claims filed the same week a year ago. DWD saw 29,418 regular weekly claims last week compared to 92,683 claims during the same period in 2021.

Things were much worse in 2020. Wisconsin lost 439,400 total non-farm jobs from March 2020 to April 2020 as the pandemic hit. Many of those “lost” jobs were workers forced to the unemployment line by Evers’ lockdown orders. The state’s jobless rate was 14.1 percent in April 2020, up from 3.1 percent just the month before.

In September, the governor finally realized he had billions of dollars in federal COVID relief aid to use at his sole discretion. He announced a plan to target $80 million to update DWD’s integrated technology system, doing what lawmakers had told him to do months before. It’s not clear where that project is today.

So why the lengthy delays in paying unemployment claims these days? Because DWD’s problems run much deeper than the technology it employs.

“The thing that always struck me throughout this was there seemed to be no sense of urgency (from the administration),” Williams said.

When the federal government would expand or extend unemployment programs, it would take months for DWD to implement the changes — leaving tens of thousands of claimants waiting for the unemployment benefits that employers fund.

“A lot of that seems like poor management,” Williams said.

It was.

By August 2020, DWD’s backlog exceeded 800,000 unpaid claims.

As Wisconsin Spotlight chronicled in a series of stories, claimants waited on hold for hours, only to be hung up at 3:30 p.m. each afternoon when the DWD office and call centers closed.

Brittney Gitzlaff, waited the better part of a year to receive her payments.

“It’s crazy,” the Menomonee Falls mother of three said in October 2020. “We just don’t know what to do at this point.”

At one point, 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 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, 2020.

Six months after the disaster started, Evers finally fired his Department of Workforce Development secretary.

The problems persist.

One claimant who was on the verge of being evicted told Wisconsin Spotlight that after she finally received her long-overdue unemployment payments, agency officials told her she was actually ineligible and moved to rescind the funds. She appealed in another long and painstaking process. She won, but, as of last month, had still not been paid.

“I have nothing left,” she wrote in a letter to the office of state Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) in August 2020. “Please help me and my kids. IM begging you. I have nowhere else to turn. Please do whatever it takes to get my claim processed. I honestly believe that you are our only hope.”

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