MADISON — The bureaucratic horror show that is Gov. Tony Evers’ Department of Workforce Development is far from over.
Just ask Jaime Swan. The Somerset, Wis. woman has waited more than two years for DWD to pay her the approximately $7,000 it owes her. Over her long ordeal, Swan says she has been ignored, insulted, pushed around and lied to. She’s been on the verge of eviction, she lost her phone service, and had her electricity shut off.
After being promised the money was on the way, Swan said she had to hire an attorney when the agency ripped the rug right out from under her and again denied her Unemployment Insurance claim. She won her appeal, only to be told after waiting (again) that she was out of luck.
“They said I shouldn’t expect my money, that the case is too complicated and no one wants to deal with it,” Swan said.
During one of the last times a DWD official actually answered her call, Swan was told despite her victory in the appeals process, she wouldn’t receive her unemployment payments. The claims specialist wouldn’t give her a reason. Swan was beside herself.
“(The DWD employee) said, ‘Don’t try to tell me how I feel, ma’am,’ and then he said, ‘I’m going to transfer you to people who deal with people like you,’” Swan said.
She waited on hold for a while, something Swan has grown accustomed to. She, like so many other unemployed Wisconsinites, has spent countless hours on the phone waiting for someone at the department to pick up — to answer basic unemployment questions.
Swan is used to rude employees at DWD, too.
“I was told that I should go to church to ask for money,” she told Empower Wisconsin in August 2020. At that time she had been waiting a mere four-plus months for her claim to be processed. “I’ve been told, ‘It’s not my problem. I’m sick of these sob stories.’”
The latest bout of incivility was just too much to take after the emotional roller-coaster ride DWD has put her on. The ride wasn’t over.
When the claims specialist returned, he affected a phony “super nice” voice, Swan said.
“He said he had talked to someone. He said, ‘Ma’am you are right. You are going to get paid. We’re working on it. It should be there within the next six weeks.” He added that Swan should not call back until after six weeks had passed.
Six weeks came and went. She called. No answer. It’s been a few months since the last DWD promise was broken.
As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported, Swan had a good job and she worked hard to take care of herself and her two children. Up until March 2020, Swan was employed as a medical coding analyst, making $1,200 a week.
Then COVID-19 struck, and so did Evers. The governor’s sweeping and illegal stay-at-home orders locked out hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin workers. And then the Department of Workforce Development couldn’t handle what the administration should have expected to be a flood of unemployment claims. Tens of thousands of displaced workers waited months for their unemployment checks to be processed.
“I feel so helpless,” she said at the time. “I feel like I’m in a pile of papers and nobody really cares. I think they’re just trying to get rid of me.”
But Swan didn’t sit idly by. She said she applied for jobs everyday, but few companies were hiring in the early months of the pandemic. Early on, she survived on a loan, help from her mother, the kindness of her landlord, and promises from DWD. The money ran out, and the promises were broken.
Desperate for income and some measure of control in her life, Swan opened a residential cleaning service, Cleaning with Meaning. She’s the boss, working 80-hour weeks and trying to make it. She says she’s certainly not flourishing, and the $7,000 in back unemployment pay would be a big help.
“I’m thankful God has given me this opportunity,” Swan said. “We’re making it, but I’m now a workaholic to make it work.”
“It’s still a problem’
State Sen. Dale Kooyenga’s office has once again intervened on Swan’s behalf, as it did in the summer of 2020. Legislative aides for Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) have assisted several frustrated UI claimants, in the Senate district and outside. At that time, the office’s efforts seemed to have lit a fire under the slow-moving government agency. But the bureaucratic nightmare goes on.
While Evers and his Workforce Development chief declared “Mission Accomplished” on the backlog of unemployment claims in late 2020, the agency’s failures continue.
“In February, nearly 7% of first unemployment payments were delayed more than 8 weeks. Delays are still elevated at a time when U claims have fallen below pre-pandemic levels,” Noah Williams, founding director of the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) reported in April.
While 7 percent is a marked improvement from the 50 percent during DWD’s debacle in 2020, and the 25 percent claims-processing 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.
DWD did not return Wisconsin Spotlight’s request for current data or a request for comment.
“I don’t think people realize it’s still a problem,” Swan said. “I did everything they asked me to do. I worked hard.”
“The last phone conversation I had with (DWD) they said I’m just not getting anything and then the said, ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?’”