Wisconsin Spotlight | Sept 29, 2020
MADISON — A state audit released last week underscores the failure of Gov. Tony Evers’ dysfunctional Department of Workforce Development.
But the people stuck on hold for so long drive home the human impact of failed government.
Among the alarming findings by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, 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 ultimaately answered.
That’s a lot of lives on hold, waiting for assistance that, for many, wouldn’t arrive for months.
By mid-June, Jennifer Robertson of West Allis had waited 10 weeks for DWD agents to process her claim. The 49-year-old furloughed chef applied for state unemployment benefits on April 6.
She described the painful waiting game to Wisconsin Spotlight.
Robertson said she would set her alarm for 7 a.m. every morning to go through the fruitless pursuit of trying to reach someone, anyone, at DWD. After calling and calling, and waiting and waiting, she frequently joined thousands of claimants who were dropped from a call center that shut down at 4:30 p.m.
“A month ago I got so frustrated I didn’t call for three days,” she said. That led to regret, thoughts of what if … Maybe somebody from DWD would have picked up.
The waiting has taken a toll on a lot of claimants. Anxiety and frustration combined to form a sense of hopeless for too many.
“I just missed a call from a (608) area code when i was mowing the lawn… no message was left. When I try to call the number back it says out of service! Could this be an adjudicator??” a member of the online Wisconsin Unemployment Support Group asked earlier this year.
The waiting for many goes on.
As Empower Wisconsin first reported last week, Nearly 6,500 Unemployment Insurance claimants have been waiting since March and April for the agency to resolve their claims, according to a review by the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The analysis was sought by state Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), chairman of the Senate Committee on Local Government, Small Business, Tourism and Workforce Development.
“In total, 6,487 claimants have unresolved eligibility issues for March and April claims,” the LFB memo states.
The Audit Bureau report noted that DWD operated its call center during the period of review, and contracted with two private call center service providers. One of the entities was required to provide at least 500 full-time equivalent staff positions at the call center, which began answering calls on May 20. But the operation wasn’t fully staffed until July 19, according to the audit.
In a letter to the Audit Bureau, DWD Deputy Secretary Rob Cherry insists his agency has made improvements to operations. But Cherry, like his boss, Gov. Tony Evers, again tried to blame “antiquated technology and limited trained personnel” for the massive failure uncovered in the audit.
“As reflected in your report, the COVID-19 pandemic and the efforts to slow the spread of this deadly virus triggered historic numbers of claims in a matter of weeks. Never has the state experienced such an incredible surge in claims so quickly. During previous economic downturns, claims slowly increased over time,” said Cherry in a letter.
True, but how does the agency explain just a half percent of calls being answered during a 3 1/2-month period?
State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), says there’s no excuse for what she describes as “one of the cruelest tricks played on citizens during COVID.”
“Having people call and telling us that they are losing their homes and are now living in their cars is the most heart-wrenching situation,” the lawmaker said. “That could have been avoided with strong leadership.”
The governor recently was forced to admit his DWD Secretary-designee, Caleb Frostman, wasn’t cutting it. Evers asked for Frostman’s resignation a week before the audit was released.
“Unfortunately, this is both completely believable given what everyone experienced, and unbelievable that it was this bad,” state Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) said in a statement. “I don’t fault them for being caught shorthanded at the beginning, but the lack of steps to improve the situation is unforgivable.”
Wanggaard and others point to the call volume that exploded in the days following the governor’s safer-at-home order that locked down Wisconsinites and a big portion of the state’s economy.
“You would have thought that this would be an alarm bell to anyone paying attention. But it took months for DWD to increase staff by 41 people,” the senator said. “What took so long, and what logic says 41 people can handle millions of phone calls? What was Governor Evers thinking? How did he not address this situation sooner? The mismanagement is mindboggling.”
By mid-May, Amanda Worley said she had exactly $7.94 in her bank account.
The out-of-work Green Bay waitress at the time had been waiting for more than two months for DWD to process her claim, even pick up the phone. She was in the first wave of unemployment applicants in March. Before she finally received her benefits, Worley had called over and over again, unsuccessfully trying to connect with a DWD agent.
“I have called nonstop. I couldn’t get through,” she told Wisconsin Spotlight in May. “It’s heartbreaking. These are the times you would think your government would be there for you, and, well, they’re not.”