Seven months after the coronavirus pandemic swept into Wisconsin, shutting down businesses, schools and everyday life, thousands of Wisconsinites are still waiting for their unemployment checks.
More than 78,000 people across the state are still caught in a backlog of unemployment claims, waiting for an employee from the Department of Workforce Development to work through the issues with their unemployment claim. And in the meantime, as the number of COVID-19 cases spike in almost every county, some residents are being left without any income.
Crystal Yelk applied for unemployment the day she lost her job at Oregon High School, as the coronavirus pandemic swept into Wisconsin.
She filed on April 11, knowing her application would likely take a few extra steps because as an employee of a school district, she likely wouldn’t qualify for normal unemployment. But she didn’t expect to still be waiting on the unemployment money in October.
School district employees typically don’t qualify for normal unemployment during the summer months when school is out, because they have reasonable assurance that they’ll have a job when the summer is over, according to the department website.
Though she’s now back at her full-time job as a special education assistant at the school and a part-time job at a restaurant, she’s still waiting on that money from the spring, feeling the stress and anxiety of unpaid bills thanks to the months of unemployment this spring.
“My credit score is worse than before. I had to sign up for food stamps. All these things that we didn’t want to do before, but had to do,” she said. “I had to get help to pay rent and have my family loan me the money that they could. It’s been very emotional, very tiresome.”
When asked about Yelk’s claim in particular, the department said her claim is pending adjudication regarding a leave of absence. The spokesperson provided no timeline for that adjudication.
But days after Yelk spoke with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Yelk, a Sun Prairie resident, received word on her pending claims. The department told her she would have a decision within a week. Yelk said she’s grateful to see movement on her unemployment, but said it shouldn’t take this much time or effort to call attention to those suffering in the backlog.
“I just want to say how crazy and awful it is that I have to email every state senator and get a newspaper to interview me to get attention to my claim. I waited 7 months for any communication on it and did not get any answers,” she said. “But within 3 days of being asked for an interview my claim was looked at and I had 2 different representatives call me to look at the discrepancies. It amazes me that we have to go to such extremes just to have our claims looked at.”
But as 2020 wanes, many of those still waiting are starting to wonder if they’ll see those payments before the new year.
Claims on the rise again
According to the Department of Workforce Development, 78,451 people are still waiting to find out if their claims will be approved or denied during the adjudication process.
The department has largely cleared the backlog from the earliest months of the pandemic, a spokesperson said last week. Only one individual’s claim from March is still waiting on adjudication, and 372 are waiting from April. In those two months alone, the department received almost 500,000 applications and by mid-June more than 480,000 applications awaited adjudication.
As of Oct. 17, over 7.4 million weekly claims were received by the department, and over 6.8 million of those claims have been either paid or denied. Still in process were 573,669 claims, according to department data.
Though the backlog dropped by over 16,000 weekly claims in this week’s data, new claims have been steadily rising over the last several weeks, but dropped this week. For the week ending Oct. 17, about 20,000 people submitted initial applications, down from nearly 23,000 people the week before.
The number of days that people are waiting for their payments has inched up, though, jumping from 25 last week to 26 days this week.
A department spokesperson said they don’t foresee issues with the elevated number of claims coming in, as the largest spike in claims typically happens between October and February. Plus, the department has continued to hire new staff members since the start of the pandemic, adding more than 1,600 people.
But some lawmakers are skeptical the hiring will help the department move through claims fast enough. State Sen. André Jacque, R-De Pere, said while the backlog is shrinking, it’s too slow. He’s worried some people might not see their unemployment money until after the end of 2020.
“The safety net is breaking for a lot of people,” he said.
He said he’s glad Gov. Tony Evers took the step of ousting the secretary of the department, Caleb Frostman, in September. The department is now temporarily headed by Amy Pechacek, who was formerly the deputy secretary of the Department of Corrections. Jacque said he hopes Pechacek continues to bring a fresh point of view to the department.
Changes have been made since Pechacek was brought on, asking for feedback from stakeholders and staff members, as well as instituting a partnership with Google Cloud to speed up the processing of backlogged claims.
The department announced the partnership on Monday afternoon and put it into effect the same day. The technology will be used at first to help identify fraudulent claims at risk of improper payment, and a second phase will allow department employees to reach out to claimants electronically, eliminating the need for phone calls and letters sent by mail. The second phase, which will launch in mid-November, will also allow claimants to upload documents straight to the unemployment website as well, eliminating the need for faxes.
It’s not yet clear how much the Google Cloud partnership will cost the state, and a spokesperson for the department did not return questions about how hacking attempts would be prevented.
Jacque sees the partnership as a step in the right direction, and a first step toward providing solutions to the issues facing unemployed Wisconsinites.
“It’s great to finally see progress on some of the things communicated to the administration from the early days of COVID-related layoffs,” he said in a Tuesday morning email. “I’m hoping this is just the start to more improvements!”
‘No one can give me answers’
Shawn Siebold, a Manitowoc resident and registered nurse, has also been waiting for about seven months since he filed his first unemployment claim in April.
Siebold was forced to step away from his job in a clinic because he has a chronic health condition that is treated by a drug that suppresses his immune system. His employer was worried about him contracting the coronavirus, so he was furloughed for a few months.
After he applied for unemployment, he was initially denied, and then applied for pandemic unemployment assistance, which provides insurance to people who don’t typically qualify for unemployment, like self-employed people or contractors. Then, he was denied for that, too, he said, because of confusion over one of the questions on the application.
Siebold immediately appealed the denial.
“It’s been sitting there since Aug. 27,” he said. “It’s not even being looked at.”
He said paying bills and child support during the months he went without an income cleaned out his savings account. He had to put school on hold. He’s now back at work and trying to build up a savings again, but it’s hard when he has to back-pay old bills.
“It’s been truly horrible,” he said. “I’ve tried to reach out and talk to them. No one can give me answers. I am so let down, it’s so frustrating. I don’t blame people for being angry these days.”
When asked about Siebold’s claim, a department spokesperson said the determination was under appeal, and no further details were available.
One of the biggest issues Siebold and Yelk have faced is a lack of information about what’s going on with their unemployment claims, or where their cases are in the queue for adjudication.
Calls to the department may now be answered, but the call center employees can only provide information available on the unemployment website, which is also accessible to the person filing. And attempts to speak to anyone higher up than the call center are fruitless.
“I asked what the process of getting adjudicator assigned, and the employee didn’t know. She said ‘You have to wait’ and that was the end of the conversation,” Yelk said. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Jacque said his office has gotten calls from all over the state, from people at their wit’s end because of the wait.
“People are darn close to losing their apartments, their cars, their means to get to employment if they can get a position,” he said. “People are desperate.”
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.