Backlog prompts proposals to change occupational licensing, but not to add resources

Discussion on draft legislation postponed as testimony heads into overtime

By: - November 16, 2022 6:40 am

Members of the state Legislature’s Study Committee on Occupatonal Licenses listen to testimony at a hearing Tuesday. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

State lawmakers are considering a dozen potential bills to overhaul portions of Wisconsin’s occupational licensing process — a response to reports of lengthy delays at the agency responsible for credentialing thousands of professionals from barbers to medical doctors.

Since July a joint legislative study committee has been reviewing the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS). On Tuesday, the committee was scheduled to start reviewing legislation drafts, but postponed that task after testimony from two department officials overshot the committee’s agenda timeline by nearly two hours.

None of those bills, however, would address what DSPS officials have said has been the principal stumbling block to reducing the agency’s application backlog: a staffing crunch and the state Legislature’s control over the money that the state gets in application fees.

In the last decade, new license applications to the agency have more than doubled. Dan Hereth, DSPS secretary-designee who took office Aug. 2, said in a letter to the committee that the state processed about 57,000 new applications and 337,000 renewals between July 2013 and June 2015. From July 2019 to June 2021, there were just under 123,000 new applications and nearly 364,000 renewals.

Defenders of DSPS outside the agency readily acknowledge that the agency’s backlog soared drastically in the last couple of years.

Marc Herstand
Marc Herstand testifies at a meeting of the Legislature’s Study Committee on Occupational Licenses. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

“In my 30 years as executive director of the National Association of Social Workers-Wisconsin, I have never seen a backlog as has existed over the last couple of years,” said Marc Herstand, one of the witnesses Tuesday. “I have heard from social workers who wanted to move to Wisconsin to go to work here that have been stymied by the huge delays in the processing of the applications.” 

Because of license delays, “We can’t use staff the way that we need to use them when they’re not available to provide the services that we need them to do,” said Renee Sororko, deputy director of the Winnebago County Department of Human Services.

But Herstand said Tuesday that DSPS isn’t to blame for the backlog. DSPS is funded by the fees it collects, including those paid by occupational license applicants. But state budgets don’t authorize the department to spend all of the revenues that it receives. 

In a March 2022 memo requested by Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), the Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that through 2021, DSPS had accumulated a balance of more than $27.6 million in revenues from its health care and business-related license fees, nearly twice the department’s $15 million budget for the 2021-22 biennium.

“They can’t actually hire the staff that they need, even though they have the money, because they have to get positional authority,” Herstand told the committee — authorization in the state budget for the number of employees working at the department.

If there was a business that had a doubling of their customers and they had the money, of course they would hire the staff. There'd be no question.

– Marc Herstand, executive director, National Association of Social Workers-Wisconsin

In his 2021-22 budget proposal, Gov. Tony Evers had asked to add 10 additional employees to the licensing staff, a request endorsed by a professional organization for mental health counselors, Herstand said. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee authorized three. 

“If there was a business that had a doubling of their customers and they had the money, of course they would hire the staff,” Herstand said. “There’d be no question.”

Others who have encountered delays have been less forgiving of the agency. Sara Wuorinen, who moved from Minnesota to work in northern Wisconsin more than a year ago as a mental health and addictions counselor, said she had applied for her substance abuse counselor training license in October 2021. She finally received it in May 2022, and remains on hold for a mental health therapy license for which she is qualified, she said. 

“Northern Wisconsin is in desperate need of therapists,” Wuorinen said. “However, DSPS has made it nearly impossible to recruit employees when the state does not honor fully licensed individuals coming from out of state.”

She rejected the suggestion that there were not enough staff at the department, saying that she had spoken with 13 different people at DSPS while trying to check on the status of her application.

Department reports improvements

Mike Tierney, the legislative liaison for DSPS, told the committee Tuesday that a new software platform for taking and processing license applications that the department is phasing in has already shown a marked improvement. The new platform allows new license applicants for the first time to upload requested paperwork directly to the department rather than relying on mailed or faxed paper documents or emailed documents.

Janet Garrett, assistant deputy secretary, and Mike Tierney, legislative liason, of the Department of Safety and Professonal Services, testify Tuesday at a meeting of the Legislature’s Study Committee on Occupational Licenses (Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye)

Earlier this year, Evers allocated money the state received under the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to the department, with some of that going to hire an outside contractor to expand its ability to take calls from license applicants. 

When the department’s six call center employees were on their own, they were able to answer about one in three calls, said Jennifer Garrett, DSPS assistant deputy secretary, who testified with Tierney. The added personnel “quadrupled the staff of the call center,” Garrett said, and the answer rate went to more than 90%. Those funds are temporary, however.

Garrett said the department has reduced the average time for processing a licensing application to 45 days and was continuing to try to improve that. 

Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), vice chair of the study committee and a vocal critic of the performance of DSPS, pressed both department officials for details on the average turnaround time for specific occupations. 

“I think one of the things that we’ve made clear on this committee is if we’re going to actually try to fix problems rather than just throw money at it, we need data,” Sortwell said.

Garrett said that while it was possible to make an overall calculation covering all licenses, it wasn’t possible to drill down to those specifics. The department is still making the transition to the new software platform, with some licensing applications still being handled entirely on paper, she observed.

“Sorting them out by license type, it would require extensive amounts of time,” she said. “If delivering data is a priority, it means issuing licenses is less of a priority, because it is the same staff.”

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Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde (D-Milwaukee) said the draft bills the committee would be looking at didn’t address the lack of authority for the department to spend its revenues and set its staff size to meet the demand. 

Several witnesses testified Tuesday “that they would like for you all to have the staffing and spending authority to be able to use the dollars in your department to help solve some of the issues that we have,” Omukunde noted. 

Referring to the draft bills, he added, “None of them are addressing your need for staffing and your need for spending authority. I would argue in fact that some of them would actually increase the burden on your department” — and on applicants as well.

Tierney and Garrett told the committee that the department would be asking for additional funds and staffing in its budget request in 2023. Sortwell was dismissive, but Sen. Rob Stafsholt (R-New Richmond), the study committee chair, said that the DSPS officials would have to be able to back up their budget request.

If the study committee were to make a recommendation to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee at budget time for a staff increase, Stafsholt said, it will need to be supported by specifics. 

“Your answer is more staff,” he said. “I’m not sure that that’s wrong. But I also don’t have the tools that it takes to go to JFC and say, ‘Listen, I agree with them. And here’s why.’”

Draft bills to change occupational licensing

The Legislature’s Study Committee on Occupational Licenses postponed its discussion of draft bills that were drawn up for Tuesday’s meeting. The drafts cover a range of proposed changes:

  • Requiring that bills to create a new occupational credential go through a proposed new joint committee of the Legislature, where it would be subjected to a variety of tests. 
  • Requiring that same committee to review all occupational licenses over the course of an eight-year cycle. Eliminating or modifying a credential would require the approval of the full Legislature. 
  • Offering a preliminary credential to applicants already licensed elsewhere. 
  • Requiring DSPS to post a list of states offering reciprocal credentialing requirements for health care professions. 
  • Creating a so-called universal license, automatically granting a credential to a person already licensed in another state who has practiced at least three to five years or if the other state’s requirements for the credential are “substantially equivalent” to Wisconsin’s. 
  • Exempting certain conviction records from being reviewed in the licensing process. 
  • Offering new graduates in a profession a preliminary credential.
  • Requiring DSPS to produce new reports every two years on the number of licenses applied for and the number granted, the average number of days the agency took to complete the license review process and either issue or deny a license, and other data about the licensing process. 
  • Requiring monthly metrics from the department on its licensing process.
  • Setting processing deadlines for the agency to grant or deny a license.
  • Extending the length of credentials from two years between renewals to four years.
  • Allowing for perpetual automatic renewal of credentials if applicants submit a renewal application before the current credential expires.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and 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.

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