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Wisconsin Spotlight | July 30, 2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON  — “Urgent” is a word apparently lost on the bureaucrats at the state Department of Workforce Development.

The agency’s dysfunctional Unemployment Insurance division now tells legislative offices that it’s taking them up to 10 days to process claims of out-of-work Wisconsinites facing imminent eviction, according to a DWD letter obtained by Empower Wisconsin.

“Due to the number of requests we have received labeled ‘URGENT,’ the expected turnaround time for these ‘prioritized’ cases has been extended to 10 days,” John Keckhaver, DWD’s legislative liaison, wrote in the letter to lawmakers.

And then he added this sad fact. “As you know, for some constituents, they do not have that long. Some have received a 5-day eviction notice and need the claim resolved now.”

As of this week, there were nearly 600,000 claims in process. Tens of thousands have waited months for the agency to process their unemployment claims. Many have waited weeks just to hear back from the troubled agency.  

It still takes DWD more than three weeks to handle standard state-based UI applications. It’s taking the agency much longer to process the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for the self-employed claimants and the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) expanded unemployment benefits.

But Gov. Tony Evers’ DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman has UI program staffing levels “stabilized” to address the claims volume, according to the letter to legislative offices.

“Secretary Frostman has directed additional staff to assist with processing legislative inquiries and resolving constituent claims,” the letter states.

Keckhaver advised legislative offices to make frustrated constituent contact information more efficient so that DWD can better manage the issues. He instructs them on how to construct an email advocating for their constituents, including lessons on subject line and email formatting. They should note a “Special Condition* if Applicable,” in the subject line, Keckhaver wrote.

And legislative offices are only supposed to use the term “Urgent” after they have “confirmed the constituent is facing” an imminent eviction/foreclosure, food insecurity, a lack of prescriptions/medical treatment or critical mental health risk.”

Legislative sources tell Empower Wisconsin there’s a lot of the above going around thanks to the mess at DWD. “Urgent,” of course, doesn’t mean there will be a fast resolution to the claims issue.

Times are growing more desperate for many.

“I can’t STAND what they are doing to people. This is total BS. I can’t pay my bills anymore,” a member of the Wisconsin Unemployment Support Group Facebook page wrote this week. “My phone will be shut off tomorrow once Verizon realizes I wrote a bad check. My credit score tanked. I have now been put into collections for an old bill I can’t pay. I lost a very special item to me to the pawn shop. I have my only mode of transportation up for sale, my insurance is going to get cancelled, I can’t afford to go to Florida to help my mom clean up her condo to rent out because my dad passed away in October and she can’t afford to keep it and she has no one to help her while she is there.

“I worked so hard to get my credit score up just to buy a house and now I can’t even afford it! I made $65k per year for the past 3 and a half years to two W2 employers and the state of Wisconsin wants to keep my UI on hold for 14 weeks now while my world falls apart right before my eyes!!! I’m sick to my stomach.”

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