Senate Committee to hold 11 a.m. public hearing on backlog Wednesday.
As Republican lawmakers criticize Gov. Tony Evers’ administration for failing to process unemployment claims in a timely manner, a Demoratic Senator said they knew six years ago about shortcomings with the system to provide jobless benefits but failed to adequately address them.
In addition, on multiple occasions since 2011, the Republican-controlled state Legislature made it harder for people to receive unemployment benefits, records show.
With a record number of unemployment insurance claims now flooding the state due to the COVID-19 crisis, roughly 675,000 claims have yet to be processed, according to the state Department of Workforce Development. Republican lawmakers are blaming Gov. Tony Evers’ administration for the system’s shortcomings.
On Tuesday, Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, referenced an audit of the state Department of Workforce Development that showed the department was struggling with backlogs seven years ago while Republicans were heading every level of government.
“They did nothing with that audit in 2014. That’s the problem,” Hansen told UpNorthNews Tuesday. “We were getting calls back then. They did nothing. They didn’t care.”
Specifically, the audit revealed that in the 2013-2014 fiscal year almost 1.7 million, or roughly 60 percent, of the calls placed to the call centers were not answered because the telephone queues were full.
From late November 2013 through January 2014, when call volumes were higher, more than 80 percent of calls to the telephone line for filing initial claims were blocked, according to the audit.
Less than 10.0 percent of such calls were blocked from February 2014 through June 2014 when, as the audit explains, calls declined as seasonal work, like construction, again resumed following the winter months.
In a letter to the state auditor dated Dec. 8, 2014, then DWD Sec. Reggie Newsom said “the seasonal increase in claims activity seen in cold-weather states like Wisconsin is an annual occurrence. And, as with call centers in the private sector, unemployment insurance call centers may experience brief “peak” periods in which call volume may exceed physical capacity.”
“Recognizing this, DWD has worked to implement an effective, convenient and user-friendly online system to file initial and continuing claims, which will enable claimants to file and complete a claim at their convenience from their personal computer, smart phone, or tablet seven days a week,” wrote Newsom.
“We look forward to a dramatically expanded use of our online system following these initial enhancements, which aligns with DWD’s long-term strategy of receiving virtually all UI claims through the Internet rather than by phone,” said Newsom in the letter.
Changes that were made, however, still left the state with a software system that dates back to the 1950s and a mainframe from the 1970s, according to Madison’s WKOW.com.
“For Republicans to come out now and say it is Frostman’s fault or Evers’ fault … they should look in the mirror,” Hansen said. “They are hypocrites.”
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said the DWD can’t continue to point to a heavy claims load as an excuse for not getting unemployment benefits to people in need more quickly. Nygren said the DWD must increase its call center hours to catch up on claims not yet processed.
“It does not take a new IT system to be transparent or to add call center hours,” he said.
Last week the DWD released figures showing that of the 2.12 million claims filed between March 15 and May 16, 675,000 have not yet been processed.
Democrats counter that the DWD is taking steps to address an unprecedented flood of unemployment filings and would be better able to process claims faster if Republicans had not curtailed benefits during the past decade.
On multiple occasions since 2011, the Republican-controlled state Legislature made it harder for people to receive unemployment benefits, records show.
For example, in 2011 the Legislature approved requiring those who lost jobs to wait one week before seeking benefits. Last month Evers and lawmakers suspended that waiting period, but it will be resumed beginning in February.
One year later Republicans enacted a law preventing many seeking unemployment benefits from receiving them if they did not search for work, or if they worked more than 32 hours in a week or received more than $500 in benefit pay.
In 2015 they increased the number of ways unemployment claimants can be denied benefits for turning down a job offer.
Then, in December 2018 Republicans approved lame-duck legislation limiting the governor’s power in multiple ways that included restrictions on the administration’s ability to increase eligibility guidelines to receive unemployment benefits.
The DWD is hiring more workers to review claims applications and plans to expand hours of call center operations, department officials said. Debate about who is responsible for the claims backlog comes as the DWD announced the state’s unemployment rate was 14.2 percent in April.
Chippewa Falls resident Jodie Arnold is among those currently jobless in Wisconsin. She first filed for unemployment eight weeks ago after being furloughed from her job at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire bookstore and has yet to receive a dollar in benefits despite filing claims weekly, she said.
Arnold and her fiance Tyler used their federal stimulus money to pay rent and help out with other bills, she said. But those dollars are gone, Arnold said, and she won’t be able to pay bills in June if she doesn’t receive unemployment money soon or get called back to work.
“I understand there are reasons for the delay,” she said. “But while the political parties are arguing about this, there are thousands of people who don’t have their money. It is super frustrating.”
The Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform will hold a hearing at 11 a.m. Wednesday on the backlog. The committee is chaired by Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater. Members of the public can watch the hearing on WisEye.