(Photo provided)
(Photo provided)

Roughly 42,000 Wisconsinites waiting on unemployment checks, as legislative committee holds hearing on why. 

By her calculations, the state of Wisconsin owes Angela Torres over $15,000. And she has no idea when or if she’ll receive that full amount, a fraction of the salary of state legislators. 

So when she heard that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) would allow the temporary waivers of unemployment requirements, such as the one-week waiting period and work search requirements, to expire on Feb. 7, she was angry.

“That’s our money. They didn’t work for it, we did,” she said. “It’s the money we busted our hump and our jobs for, that our employer put in for our wages. And they want to take it away from us.”

Torres has waited over eight months to receive her unemployment benefits, and she’s not alone. According to an study by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) of the state’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD), tens of thousands of Wisconsinites had to wait months to hear whether they would receive their benefits, and in many cases those delays were caused by agents failing to request the information they needed to resolve a claim.

Another cause for the delay was DWD officials placing 514,026 claims, 77.6% of the total filed, into adjudication in order to determine whether they were eligible to receive benefits. The week of March 15, DWD only had 175 adjudicators to review each of those claims. By Sept. 20, that number had gone up to 563.

But DWD officials are not entirely at fault for the delays. In May, the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform held a hearing on why the state was unable to process more applications. Neeraj Kulkarni, DWD chief information officer and IT director said the department’s system, which uses programming language developed in the early 1950s, has to shut down at 6 p.m. to process all the data entered throughout the day. New data cannot be entered during that time.

This isn’t the first time the antiquated system has fallen behind. An audit conducted in the 2013-2014 fiscal year that showed the department was struggling with backlogs seven years ago. Republicans who controlled the Legislature and now-former Governor Scott Walker’s office did nothing.  

However, the audit determined that DWD was responsible for 11out of the 13 weeks it took on average to process claims, and those delays were mainly caused by officials not requesting information they needed and not resolving issues when they did have the information.

LAB also investigated the DWD’s call centers and the cases of overpayment in unemployment benefits. The audit found that over 19 million calls to the call center were either blocked or received busy signals.

As of Oct. 10, DWD had paid 493,504 out of the 662,731, or 74.5%, of the individuals who had applied for unemployment benefits.

According to the DWD, as of Friday, 35,383 unemployment insurance claims still need to be resolved after waiting more than 21 days and 41,734 individuals’ cases were awaiting adjudication. The average number of days it takes for a claim to go from being filed to paid is 28 days. 

A reckoning

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee held a public hearing on the audit reports on Wednesday. Before state auditor Joe Chrisman presented the findings, Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) reprimanded Wisconsin Republicans for not holding a hearing on this issue earlier in the year, particularly Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) who issued a statement taking issue with the lack of overtime recorded by DWD staff.

“The legislators didn’t even work,” Carpenter said. “All I heard from Republican legislators is it’s Gov. [Tony] Evers’ fault.”

Cowles said he wanted to focus on moving forward particularly with processing the remaining 42,000 outstanding claims.

“It’s a tremendous burden of pain, especially ahead of the holiday season,” Cowles said.  

LAB’s report recommended DWD use the results of the audit to inform changes that will pay beneficiaries in a more timely manner, provide more guidance in its adjudication manual on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, and identify and notify all individuals eligible for PUA. 

DWD is to report on its progress to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee by Jan. 15.

No more excuses

For Torres, the reckoning over unemployment is long overdue.

“Their excuse is the pandemic, the pandemic,” she said. “It’s old. I don’t want to hear it anymore.”

Torres had worked at Generac Mobile Products in Berlin since 2017. In February she was granted medical leave after she had surgery on her right foot. Once her leave was ending, her doctor cleared her to return to work but under the stipulation that she could not stand during her shift and had to be seated. 

She said the company was unwilling to accommodate her and let her go. But when she applied for unemployment, her claim was denied and DWD told her the company had said she’d been unwilling to work. She appealed but has been waiting for months for a hearing on her case.

Her family has struggled to get by on one income and she’s had to explain to her children why they’re not going to have presents for Christmas this year. So she also has no patience for DWD officials or Wisconsin Republicans who are unsympathetic.

“I would love to be able to just take all their jobs for three months. No pay, no income and have them live the way we’re living. Put themselves in my shoes,” she said. “The hardship, going into debt and scrounging and budgeting your money right down to the teeth. Explain to your kids why you can’t have a Christmas because that’s the most devastating thing ever and that’s a scar on everybody’s life that they’ve done this to.”

She’s also angry from watching the GOP thwart Gov. Tony Evers’ attempts to get the pandemic under control. She lost two people to COVID-19 within one month. 

“The governor wasn’t even allowed to protect the people of Wisconsin because the other ones who wanted to go party at the bars and go fishing and everything. My rights were taken away. I’ve got a right to have my family protected  and stay healthy and survive,” she said. “There’s no law saying you’ve got the right to drink. There’s no law saying you have the right to go fishing or hunting. That’s a want, not a need. You need to protect the citizens and residents of Wisconsin.”