Do you qualify for unemployment? Veuer’s Elizabeth Keatinge has more. Buzz60
The last month has been full of tough decisions for Aaron Thorson of Madison.
Working in construction before COVID-19 hit Wisconsin, Thorson, 23, said he was already living paycheck to paycheck. Now, after more than a month of unemployment or just taking odd jobs here and there, he’s in a dire situation because his unemployment insurance still hasn’t been approved by the state.
“I have had to embarrassingly ask my boss if he could cover a tank of gas for the week so I could try and continue making just enough money to cover rent and bills, as well as food for my wife and son,” he wrote in a submission to an online Milwaukee Journal Sentinel survey about unemployment payments.
“I’ve gone a few days without eating so I would have enough money to make sure they could be well fed.”
Thorson said his application for unemployment has been stalled, waiting for the Department of Workforce Development to check that he is actually still not employed by his previous job.
“It shouldn’t take over a month at this point to figure out,” he said in an email to a reporter.
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Thorson isn’t alone. Across the state, people are taking to social media to share their experiences about delays that have left them wondering how they’re going to pay bills. A Facebook group, the “Wisconsin Unemployment support group,” brings people together to share their stories of struggles and to give advice.
As Wisconsin residents fight with the unemployment system, they have to wait for their unemployment checks — payments that are supposed to be supplemented with an additional $600 in federal money provided for in the CARES Act.
More than 500,000 claims for unemployment have yet to be processed — a number that doesn’t include people who haven’t even been able to file a claim, either because of struggles connecting with the DWD or navigating the online application system.
One of them is Josh Rardin. On a single day last month, Rardin tried nearly 700 times to call DWD about unemployment insurance. About 200 of those calls connected to the unemployment line, he said, but none were answered.
Rardin was laid off in late March when his employer, Music Go Round in Greenfield, was forced to close. He immediately tried to file for unemployment, he said.
He found out the hard way the potential for user error on the online site to trip up an application. The first week he applied, he clicked the wrong answer to a question about his ability to work. He selected “no,” because Music Go Round was closed. Turns out that the question actually meant physical ability to work, and he was physically able.
After that, he tried to fill out a form on the state’s job center site — a prerequisite for applying for unemployment insurance. A typo in his Social Security number on that site meant the job center system wasn’t able to communicate with the unemployment site, leading to a denial of benefits.
“It’s been kind of a mess,” he said.
Now he’s waiting on his claim to be addressed by an agent with the department. But there’s no telling when that will happen.
‘We know people are struggling’
State officials aren’t hiding from the fact that thousands of newly jobless people are struggling to get benefits.
Since March 15, the Department of Workforce Development has seen more than 500,000 applications for unemployment insurance and nearly 1.5 million weekly claims, according to department data, adding up to more than $384 million. More than 966,000 of the claims made by May 2 had paid out.
Ben Jedd, the DWD communications director, said that number is comparable to the first eight months of a normal year, he said.
The department is receiving about 4 million to 5 million calls a week, a 6,000% increase from the busiest week last year, Jedd said.
The department’s 600 employees handling calls can’t keep up, he said.
“At times, we’ve averaged 160 calls per second,” he said.
To deal with the crush of calls and floods of applications for unemployment, the state has started taking employees from other divisions of the department and moving them into the unemployment division.
Employees from other areas of state government are also being moved over, Jedd said, such as employees from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Department of Revenue and Department of Transportation. The department is also working on hiring 200 to 250 new employees and getting them trained to handle unemployment claims and questions.
But the training isn’t easy or simple, Jedd said. The employees have to undergo extensive background checks because they’re handling people’s financial information. Then there’s training on the operating systems before the employees can start taking calls.
“We’re doing everything we can to make that go as fast as possible,” he said.
The department is also working on establishing a contract with a call center that would add 500 more people to answer phones and about 100 more people to file paperwork. The call center would employ people from across the U.S., working remotely, Jedd said.
But that all will take time. In the meantime, Jedd encourages people to make sure that they’re filling out their unemployment applications correctly and filing them online as opposed to calling in. He also asks them to be patient, but he knows that’s a high goal.
“We know people are struggling, and we want to do everything we can to help,” he said.
A standstill in payments
Kristin Cooper, 37, has been unemployed for nearly five weeks and has yet to file for unemployment because, though her job is in Wisconsin, she lives in Illinois.
Cooper has worked as a manager for Music Go Round in Greenfield and Kenosha for nearly 17 years. She attempted to file for unemployment the day after she found out she would be without a job, but because she doesn’t hold a Wisconsin driver’s license, she can’t apply online.
So she started calling the numbers provided for those who earn their paycheck in Wisconsin but live in another state. She has yet to make it through to a person, she said. It’s been five weeks of nonstop calling.
“I’m at a frustrating standstill,” she said.
Cooper is also caring for her 9-year-old son and attempting to keep up with bills and basic needs, she said, despite not having a paycheck.
“It’s been a struggle. I’ve had to rely a lot on savings,” she said. “I’ve had to ask for loans.”
Music Go Round is loaning her a bit of money but not enough to make ends meet.
“I’m relying a lot on credit cards,” she said.
The financial strain, she said, along with having to be home all the time and serve as a full-time teacher for her son, is a lot for her.
“For me, personally, it’s resulted in sleepless nights and antsy-ness,” she said. “It’s a huge stressor.”
James Prisching, 62, and his wife are facing the same issues. They also live in Illinois, but his wife, whom he did not name because of concerns over issues at her job, works in Wisconsin, as an employee of Children’s Wisconsin hospital.
She’s still working one or two days a week, he said, but her hours have been cut. So far, she has not been able to apply because she lacks a Wisconsin ID. She’s been calling 20 to 25 times a day, Prisching said, only to be hung up on because of high call volumes.
Prisching, who worked as a photographer for several universities near Chicago, is also now effectively unemployed, too. And though he said he and his wife have enough money in savings to help them through, the coronavirus pandemic could carry on for months, creating issues for them. If Wisconsin would just remove the ID requirement, then his wife would be able to apply for unemployment.
“That’s the frustrating part,” he said.
Jedd, with DWD, acknowledges that claims for nonresidents have been a problem.
The department has seen claims come from residents of all of Wisconsin’s border states. It’s not that the process is any longer than for a resident of Wisconsin, it’s just that their unemployment application automatically goes to the claim department. By comparison, most unemployment applications do not go through the claims department, unless there is an issue or mistake on them.
“It’s definitely an issue,” Jedd said.
Lawmakers short on advice
State lawmakers have also been hearing from constituents struggling with unemployment. Their offices are trying to help.
On Monday, a group of 36 lawmakers sent a letter to the Department of Workplace Development, asking that any options to speed up the processing of claims be explored, including preapproving claims that are likely to be approved after a review, according to the letter.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said preapproving some applicants would be similar to a process that is done with Medicaid that allows people to get health care as quickly as possible when it’s needed.
“Every day we are contacted by individuals who have been waiting weeks, some more than a month, to have their claims reviewed,” he wrote in a letter of support for preapproval. “Unfortunately, bills and other necessary expenses have not been put on pause. DWD should be doing all they can and thinking outside of the box to expedite these claims.”
But preapproval isn’t an option for those waiting on their check, said Caleb Frostman, the secretary of the department, in a response letter to the lawmakers.
“We are limited by federal law and guidelines on claims investigation, payment, and program integrity requirements that prevent us from paying claims before affirmatively determining a claimant is entitled to state and federal benefits,” he wrote in the letter. “Any answer given on a claim that raises a question regarding a person’s eligibility must be fully investigated before benefits may be paid.”
Nygren said in an interview that he’s been hearing from constituents since mid-March about pending issues after they filed unemployment claims. Most of those people are still pending and haven’t gotten any benefits for nearly two months. He said that so far, he’s gotten about 50 contacts from constituents via email, phone calls and Facebook Messenger, which is high for a single issue.
Sen. André Jacque, R-DePere, said he’s been getting hundreds of contacts from constituents about not receiving unemployment. He said that it’s been heartbreaking hearing the stories of the impact on people and families.
“They never expected to be put in this situation,” he said. “The frustration is that they’ve done everything they can do. People are getting more desperate.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in an email that he’s been contacted by constituents, too, and has assigned staff members to help with the cases.
“Losing a job is hard enough, people shouldn’t have to wait weeks for a response from state government,” he said in an email Tuesday.
‘It’s a wait-and-see game’
Adrian Shiddell, a paraprofessional for the Waukesha School District, is still waiting after a month to hear back from the department. He said that he and the rest of his co-workers still haven’t gotten any unemployment. They’ve reached out to the school district, but their employer says that all the necessary paperwork has been submitted to the department, so there shouldn’t be a reason for a delay in payments.
“A lot of things are at a standstill for me,” he said. “We financially had to cut back on some things.”
Shiddell said that, luckily, his wife is able to work from home, so they have income, but with three children and bills that keep coming, it’s still a struggle.
“It’s a wait-and-see game. Each day I’m online looking,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep my fingers crossed. It’s been a rough ride, it really has.”
Thorson, the Madison construction worker, is in the same boat. He said he wishes that there had been more preparation for the onslaught of joblessness.
“I do think that they should have been prepared for this sudden influx of applicants,” he said. “Considering it’s been projected for a few months that it would be bad.”
And though he knows that he will get back pay for all of the weeks of missed unemployment, not having money is forcing him to think about possible plans for the future, so that he can pay his bills.
“If this were to continue for another few weeks or month, I legitimately don’t know if I could afford rent, bills, food and gas,” he said. “I would probably end up having to sell my car or something so I could breathe a little easier for a few weeks.”
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.
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