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Wisconsin Spotlight | Aug. 31, 2020

MADISON — Alysa just received a sliver of sunshine after 5 1/2 months of dark days trapped in the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Unemployment Insurance system.

Alysa, a single mom of three elementary school-aged children who asked her last name be withheld, finally received a portion of the jobless benefits she’s been waiting for since March — when Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide lockdown forced her to leave her armed security job and take care of her children.

The $2,000 dropped into her bank account came in the nick of time, right after she received a five-day eviction notice informing her she had to move if she didn’t come up with her rent. She didn’t have it. She didn’t have much of anything.

“The kids are starting back to school, there was no food in the house,” she said. “I work out of my car, and I didn’t know how I was going to pay for gas, for daycare.”

“It was just stress after stress after stress. It’s a blow to your gut, every night looking at your kids and not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

She said she has suffered so much anxiety over her unemployment battles that her health care provider prescribed anti-anxiety medication.

‘Hundreds of times’ 

In March, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Evers began shutting down schools and daycare centers closed down. Single parents like Alysa were faced with difficult decisions. They had to find alternative child care, or stay at home. Unable to find reasonably priced providers to take all of her children, Montijo told her company that she had to temporarily leave her job. She said the employer was very understanding.

DWD’s Unemployment Insurance division, not so much.

“I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times I reached out to unemployment (officials). They didn’t have any explanations. They only read off what it says in the portal about my claims. That was very frustrating. I can read. I needed someone to help,” the claimant said.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expanded unemployment benefits eligibility to those forced to leave their jobs to care for family members due to pandemic-related school or daycare closures.

Alysa struggled to make that point clear to the bureaucrats at DWD. After months in limbo, seemingly endless hours on the phone, and rejection, she reached out to Sen. Dale Kooyenga’s office. Five days later, she got a long-awaited call from an adjudicator. That was nearly three weeks ago. She had to explain everything again, but the adjudicator lifted DWD’s previous denial of her claim. And then went on vacation.

“So I was waiting again. I kept calling. I got ahold of him, and had to repeat everything to him all over again,” she said. “Finally, just today, they approved me for a small portion of regular unemployment benefits, and now I have to wait for the (federal) PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance).”

The money was enough to pay her rent and get her kids some school supplies. The claimant says she’s frugal, so she can stretch a tight budget. She has to. She doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Eventually, she found a daycare provider and went back to work, first part-time, and then, in late July, full-time. But the bills had piled up by then.

She still has more waiting to do.

Keep fighting 

Thousands more still are waiting for something from an agency that continues to falter nearly six months after it was flooded with record unemployment claims.

Holly Reitz, a veteran and single mother of two boys, first applied in March. She taught in the Waukesha School District before getting laid off amid the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Senate office records. Reitz was offered a job working summer school, but the district canceled classes. She still doesn’t know her claim status but worries her lost opportunity this summer messed up her claim.

The veteran is now facing eviction.

Alysa said all claimants can do is keep fighting for what they are owed.

“It’s hard, I know a lot of people are going through it. All I can say is, keep going through it, keep calling. Talk to anyone you can,” she said.

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