Unemployment delays divide Senate Republicans, Democrats

Nearly seven-fold increase in claims forced state to reassign workers, grapple with old system, says DWD chief

DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman
Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman speaks at an informational hearing by the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform in May. (Screenshot from Wisconsin Eye broadcast)

Wisconsin is ramping up the number of people processing claims for unemployment compensation in hopes of knocking down a nagging backlog in the system, but it could be the fall before the state can get completely caught up, the state’s labor secretary said Wednesday.

At a state Senate committee hearing, Caleb Frostman, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) defended the department’s handling of skyrocketing unemployment claims in the weeks following the health emergency declared by Gov. Tony Evers on March 12 due to COVID-19 and the subsequent Safer at Home order.

Acknowledging that hundreds of thousands of jobless pay claims were still hanging for various reasons, Frostman emphasized the unprecedented number of people thrown out of work.

“Between March 15 and May 10, 2.4 million weekly claims were filed in Wisconsin,” Frostman said at an informational hearing called by the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform. That was a 670% increase from the same 8-week period a year ago, when the department received 311,000 weekly unemployment claims, he testified.

Senate Republicans scheduled the hearing after weeks of reports about would-be applicants for unemployment compensation who have complained about being unable to get through to file a claim or, having filed, waiting without word about the status of their applications.

Steve Nass
State Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater). (Screenshot from Wisconsin Eye broadcast)

The Republicans portrayed the backlog as a shortcoming of the Evers administration. Democrats, however, pointed to years of what they described as Republican inaction on longstanding problems in the unemployment compensation system.

“Why is the department not applying more energy and speed in getting all of these claims paid in a timely manner?” Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), the committee chair, asked DWD chief Frostman.

Frostman cited several reasons, some in his testimony even before Nass asked the question.

DWD has been transferring employees from elsewhere in the department as well as other units of state government, he said. New hires must pass background screening because unemployment staffers handle personal identification information such as Social Security numbers. And they require extensive training in the work, which includes not just taking initial claims but also processing them and making judgments about  more complicated and potentially contested claims.

The department has hired or contracted for a total of 1,300 new employees to supplement the unemployment compensation staff. That includes a contract for a 500-person call center to take initial application calls.

To date, 72% of the 2.4 million weekly claims that have been filed have been paid, said Frostman, while the unpaid claims fall into several categories. About 11% of all claims have been denied because applicants were not eligible, and another 1% have been suspended because the applicants had been overpaid in the past. The number of claims on hold because they require further investigation or clarification is 16%, or 388,000, and those represent about 140,000 people who have filed claims.

“If they’ve not been paid yet, there are questions about their eligibility,” said Frostman. He said he expects the backlog to be drawn down completely by the fall, with the length of time a case is backlogged getting much shorter between now and then as well.

Calls around the clock?

Nass and Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) several times asked why the department couldn’t take calls around the clock. Frostman said doing so would have meant simply spreading the same number of employees over a longer time period, which would not  increase the number of calls they could respond to.

In addition, he said, the unemployment comp system’s computer uses software that dates back more than 40 years and can’t receive new information entered at night when it’s undergoing daily processing.

Kapenga twice suggested that the department could bring back state employees who he said have been home “getting paid to do nothing.” Former Gov. Scott Walker has tweeted about that several times in recent weeks, most recently early Wednesday morning.

Asked via email about the basis for the suggestion that there are state employees at home, being paid while not working, a member of Kapenga’s staff sent the Wisconsin Examiner a link to a May 7 emergency rule that Evers approved allowing paid administrative leave for limited term employees for reasons related to the pandemic, and allowing state employees to use accrued sick leave if they must care for a family member for reasons related to the pandemic.

At a media briefing on Wednesday with Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), the Wisconsin Examiner asked the governor how many state employees were home with pay and not working.

“About zero,” Evers replied.

Democrats hit back

Sen. Robert Wirch (D-Kenosha) and Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville) both turned criticism of DWD’s unemployment performance back on the Republicans. Wirch criticized the Walker administration’s failure to act on past recommendations to update the agency’s computer system, and Ringhand said Republicans were to blame for roadblocks in the system.

“Lowering protections for Wisconsin workers was a theme of the Walker administration,” Ringhand said in a statement released after the hearing. It was one of several pushed out by Democratic lawmakers, along with a Legislative Reference Bureau memo outlining Republican restrictions on unemployment passed over the last decade.

Ringhand noted that one  measure Republicans passed and Walker signed during the December 2018 lame duck session before Evers took office barred the governor from expanding eligibility for unemployment compensation. “The Republican Legislature’s effort to make it more difficult for laid-off workers to navigate the Unemployment system has really been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.