Telephone calls from people seeking unemployment compensation in Wisconsin so overwhelmed the state’s system in the first three and a half months of the COVID-19 pandemic that only half of 1% got through, according to a new audit released Friday.
The report, produced by the state Legislative Audit Bureau, offers a glimpse of just how overwhelmed the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) was as unemployment insurance claims skyrocketed when the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent state orders to prevent its spread, took hold in Wisconsin starting in March.
The audit covers a small part of the pandemic-related breakdown in the state’s unemployment insurance (UI) system, as applications for UI soared to record numbers and more than 100,000 applicants at a time have had their cases put on hold. On Sept. 18, Gov. Tony Evers fired DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman, calling the lengthy delays “unacceptable.”
According to the audit, between March 15 and June 30, 41.1 million telephone calls were placed to three call centers that were taking applications for UI. Of those calls, 0.5% got answered. The vast majority — 93.3%, or 38.3 million — were blocked or received busy signals. Another 6.2% were abandoned.
“It kind of states the obvious,” said attorney Victor Forberger, who represents unemployment claimants with their cases. “The system melted down and you could not get through at all.”
If no one is available to take a call coming into the state’s UI claim phone lines, the caller is put on hold in a queue that has a limited capacity. When there’s no room for more calls to hold, the system blocks subsequent calls or gives a busy signal.
DWD used a single call center staffed by department employees until May 20, when the first of two call centers operated by outside contractors was added. A second contract call center began taking calls June 1 specifically for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), funded by the federal CARES Act for people who lost work but didn’t qualify for regular UI payments.
The report states that the numbers of calls that were blocked appeared to improve in June and the following months, with DWD reporting that no calls were blocked in the third week of August.
The call centers are just one piece of the state unemployment system’s intake process. DWD policy requires the vast majority of UI applicants to file their claims online. Only a limited number, such as people lacking internet access or whose claims involve work in another state as well as Wisconsin, are supposed to file by telephone.
Between April 26 and Aug. 22, 6.6% of initial unemployment claims were filed by phone, the audit report states. “Therefore, the extent to which individuals were unable to speak with the call centers explains only one reason why some individuals did not receive unemployment benefits in a timely manner.”
Most calls that got through weren’t to file claims, however. Nearly half — 41.6% — came from people with questions about the UI program. Other calls were seeking help in using the online filing system, following up on problems related to weekly UI claims, inquiries about PUA, inquiries from employers and callers requiring help with translation.
About one in five of the calls that got through were to file claims: 12.7% to file initial UI claims, and 8.6% to file subsequent weekly claims.
The report includes a series of recommendations on information DWD should report to the Legislature, which the department, in its response, accepted. One of those recommendations called for the department to include the number of calls that receive a busy signal when it reports to the Legislature on the outcome of calls.
Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), co-chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, charged in a statement that “DWD deliberately withheld information” when the department in May reported 4.9 million calls had been blocked, omitting the larger number of busy signal calls — which “softened the true severity of the lack of responsiveness of the UI call system.”
But DWD deputy secretary Rob Cherry, in the response to the report, said the agency was following instructions from Cowles and his co-chair, Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem Lakes), who “requested a list of specific information be provided to them on a weekly basis,” including the number of DWD call center calls and specifying the number answered, abandoned and blocked.
In a joint statement, Cowles and Kerkman said that the audit findings pointed to “the slow and inadequate handling” of the crush of unemployment claims that led to thousands of applicants reporting lengthy delays in getting paid as bills mounted.
“The anguish and unanswered questions of hundreds of thousands unemployed Wisconsin workers could have been mitigated had the Department acted quickly to adapt to a known need,” Kerkman stated.
“I don’t buy that,” Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison), one of four Democrats on the audit committee, said in an interview.
Sargent said “the numbers are absolutely shocking” in the report. But underlying them were changes that the Legislature’s Republican majority made to the state’s UI law over the last decade, she said, making the application process more difficult while also ignoring the need for technology upgrades.
Democrats in the Legislature in July unveiled a series of bills that would roll back many of those changes, although the Republican leaders in both the Assembly and the state Senate have refused to return to regular session since April.
“We as a Legislature should have been called back into action to address what it is that we knew was going on with DWD, without this audit, a long time ago,” Sargent said.