MADISON — In late December, Department of Workforce Development Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek took a victory lap, proclaiming that DWD had cleared its mountainous backlog of regular Unemployment Insurance claims.
It was another case of premature celebration from an Evers administration agency prone to failure. Politifact labeled the claim half true, as thousands continued to wait to be paid.
Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) recently noted the horror stories of some of her constituents stuck in an incompetent UI system filled with “rude, untrained, non-responsive and combative” DWD staff.
“This is unacceptable,” Darling said. “My constituents are already in a tough spot and the Evers administration is making it worse.”
A Germantown UI claimant who spoke to Wisconsin Spotlight on condition of anonymity said he, like so many other out-of-work Wisconsinites, waited months for his claim to be resolved. The retired senior citizen said no one at DWD would answer his questions for weeks. When he finally got ahold of a live person, he said he was “greeted by one of the rudest persons I’ve ever dealt with on the phone.”
That’s saying something. The Germantown man said he spent his career in sales.
When his contract assisting a non-profit ended in December, he filed his first unemployment claim. DWD informed him that his application would be delayed pending his full earnings release for the final quarter of the year. All the paperwork went through, but he heard nothing.
“It took numerous, repeated calls but I finally got ahold of this person. He said he’d like to check on the status of my account,” the claimant said. He was shocked by the incivility of the “customer service” rep.
“I’ve dealt with upset people in my day, but this person took the cake. He said, ‘Don’t you realize 30 million people are out of work at this time . Why are you wasting my time?’” the UI claimant said. The DWD claims processor also was exaggerating the numbers, even on a national basis.
Despite the man’s pleas for DWD to resolve his claim, he couldn’t get through. Finally he reached out to Darling’s office and the situation was straightened out in relatively short order. He has received about $8,000 of the nearly $11,000 he’s owed in state and federal unemployment benefits.
While his experience was exasperating, he said he was luckier than many trapped in DWD’s dysfunctional Unemployment Insurance system. He has some savings, he wasn’t facing eviction. There were times, though, he wondered how much he’d have to eat into his savings before he finally received the payments he was clearly eligible for.
“I was starting to think, ‘What am I going to be doing here?’ It was just a mess,” he said. “No way there was going to be any direct communications (with DWD) at all until Sen. Darling’s office got involved.”
In another case, a Waukesha woman laid off during the pandemic was put through the DWD wringer before being approved for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits has been informed she must pay back $16,000-plus.
“(She) has 15 days in order to get it taken care of or else there will be a notice of intent to issue a warrant in the matter,” according to the office of Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield). “She has called and talked to some 50 people at DWD and has gotten conflicting information about whether this notice is appealable.”
There was initially confusion about whether she qualifies because she is on Social Security Disability Insurance, but she was eventually told by DWD staff that she would qualify under PUA. DWD staff was assisting with filing claims because she doesn’t have a computer.
Earlier this week, the Waukesha woman was told the order is not open to appeal. She has a letter stating that she is entitled to up to 39 weeks of PUA, so she is understandably confused about the overpayment charge.
DWD reported 7,431 initial unemployment claims for the week ending June 5 (the latest data available), with a total of 54,917 regular weekly claims. That pales in comparison to the nearly 25,000 initial claims and 253,000 regular weekly claims from the same time last year. Early June 2020, of course, found Wisconsin and the world in the throes of the pandemic and a Department of Workforce Development failing to meet the resultant unemployment crisis.
But a year later, there remain thousands of Wisconsinites dealing with the delays and dysfunction that have marked Gov. Tony Evers’ UI division.
While DWD may have declared victory over its unemployment claims backlog in December, plenty of jobless Wisconsin residents have lost much waiting for their unemployment checks more than five months later.