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Wisconsin Spotlight | July 1, 2020

MADISON  — It’s a heartbreaking letter, from thousands of out-of-work Wisconsinites failed by their government.

The letter is addressed to Gov. Tony Evers and “all others who have remained silent.” Every member of the state Legislature, the governor, multiple news organizations, and the dysfunctional Department of Workforce Development received a copy.

The Wisconsin Unemployment Support Group, a Facebook page for the frustrated and the desperate, notes that two months ago members sent Evers a petition begging him to address the long lag in Unemployment Insurance payments. As of Friday, 1,250 people had signed.

Since the petition, the Facebook page has grown to north of 3,800 Wisconsinites. Members have tweeted thousands of times, written all kinds of letters and emails, done media interviews.

“We have helped people through evictions, food instability and with mental health issues,” the letter states.

All to no avail, the group asserts.

“With all of this activity, carried on continuously for the last 2 months, we must admit to ourselves and to you the bitter, demoralizing truth: we are simply pawns in this game as no one has appeared to actually do what needs done,” the letter states.

Wisconsin Spotlight has told the stories of some of the people caught in DWD’s broken system. In one case, a 60-year-old woman has waited three months for unemployment benefits it appears she should have been able to claim two months ago.

“Me, as an individual, I live by myself. I have no money coming in,” Carol Glupker, 60, of Milwaukee said. “I have depleted all of my savings account, all my 401(k). I have nothing left anymore.”

Earlier this month, DWD reported that 151,000 individual claimants were still waiting for unemployment benefits or an administrative decision from DWD. Some 860,000 jobless claims had yet to be paid.

Agency officials have blamed outdated technology for the massive backlog, and the Evers administration has criticized the Republican-led Legislature for not allocating enough funding to fix the system. At the same time, reports from scores of unemployed detail astounding incompetence and callousness exhibited by DWD staff and managers.

DWD Secretary-designee Caleb Frostman says the agency has hired contracted employees for the overmatched call center, but it’s clear that leadership was slow to respond to the flood of claims amid the pandemic and Gov. Tony Evers’ orders locking down the state. 

Finally, emails are going out within the administration asking for employees from other departments to assist the Unemployment Insurance division, something critics have urged for months.

An email Tuesday morning from Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan advised state employees that DWD is seeking an “additional 100 employees” to assist with Unemployment Insurance “for six weeks beginning July 13.” 

“Each agency has been asked to identify volunteers who are willing to take on this critical assignment,” Brennan’s email states. 

So the cavalry is coming, but not for another two weeks. 

“This is a crisis,” the Unemployment Insurance Support Group letter asserts. “It is indeed a time of intense difficulty, trouble and danger. We have intervened where people have contemplated suicide because of this situation. This is how intensely stressful the DWD’s negligence has made people’s lives.”

The group’s letter concludes with a warning.

“Finally, we urge you to think about the elections in November: who are people going to vote for? Someone who kept silent because they had nothing to add to the solution pool, or someone who spoke up and advocated for the people?  I think we all know the answer,” the letter states.

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