Robert Johnson lost his job at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center at the beginning of the pandemic after a disagreement with his bosses there. He applied for unemployment on March 22, assuming he’d hear back quickly.
One month passed and then two and three. Johnson’s fiancé, Pamela Chesner, was still working, but it was hard to pay their mortgage on their Milwaukee home plus bills and food. The stress took a toll on their relationship, Johnson said.
“It was just so much pressure,” he said.
Johnson tried to be patient, but things got to the point where he had to sell valuables, like the couple’s snowmobile, guns and even a computer. They were going to food banks to ensure they had enough to eat. Johnson was calling everyone he could in an attempt to find out why his claims were being held up: the governor’s office, his state representatives, the Department of Workforce Development. No one was able to give him answers.
“It was exhausting, literally exhausting. It was mentally exhausting,” he said.
Chesner saw what was happening to Johnson and wasn’t sure what to do to help. At one point he told her he had thought about taking his own life. She was still working every day and trying to stay positive, but it was hard watching Johnson slip deeper into a depression, she said.
“It’s hard to support that other person and lift them up,” she said. “When you come in the door and someone wants to give up on life, it’s hard to keep him up and keep yourself up without falling into that same trap.”
Legislators and crisis centers have heard increasing desperation from Wisconsin residents waiting on their unemployment over eight months of the coronavirus pandemic. Some crisis center workers say the economic impact of the pandemic has exacted more strain on people than the Great Recession of 2008, making it hard to find a job, pay bills and put food on the table for thousands of people.
Johnson finally ended up getting his unemployment payments at the end of October, after calling and writing to his local representatives and informing them he is a veteran. But the desperation didn’t end with the payment, Johnson said. The couple still has months of bills to catch up on.
“I waited almost six months,” he said. “This is hard on people.”
State Sen. André Jacque, R-De Pere, said his office has gotten dozens of concerning messages from constituents waiting for months on unemployment. In one case, his office had to escalate a claim to Capitol police, who reached out to a local department for a welfare check after receiving a message from a person who said they were suicidal.
“You hear the desperation,” he said. “The length of time they’ve gone, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to pay the bills. It leads to desperation.”
He and his staffers are doing their best to help out when they can, forwarding messages on to the department. But in some cases, it still takes time for claims to be worked on.
“I think there’s no doubt that a lot of people are at the end of the rope,” he said. “The longer they’re applying (for unemployment) and not receiving it.”
‘People are quite frankly giving up’
Nearly 36 million unemployment claims were filed in the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, according to a May 14 report from the New York Times.
And though people have started returning to work, a crisis still remains as interruptions to normal life continue and hope for a quick and safe re-opening fade. Record numbers of people are still relying on state unemployment and federal programs that allow them to extend the number of weeks of unemployment available.
According to a New York Times survey conducted in October, only about 53% of people who lost their job to the pandemic have returned to work, up from 38% in August.
And for those who are still caught in the backlog of claims, awaiting payment and searching for jobs to find nothing, it’s not a surprise that there are feelings of hopelessness and sadness, said Maria Perez, the vice president of behavioral health at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers in Milwaukee. It’s something that’s come up time and time again for clients that speak with her and her team.
“Unemployment has come up as a theme,” she said. “An increased number of people are implicating unemployment in their depression, whether it’s losing a job or having hours cut. It’s a significant contributor to suicidal thoughts, losing hope, feeling anger and mistrust and eroding trust in government.”
Perez, who oversees 50 different providers at several Milwaukee-area clinics, said it’s been well-established in the past that suicide is linked to lower economic status, but the pandemic — and the unemployment crisis — has worsened things. Perez said she’s never seen anything quite like what’s happening now, and it’s been harder on her clients than even the 2008 recession.
“What we saw in 2008 and 2009 really pales in comparison,” she said.
In Wisconsin, where some people have been calling the department for months without answers or payments, it can compound with other stress and anxiety.
“People quite frankly are giving up,” she said. “They’re calling and calling and can’t get through.”
‘You can’t fix it, but you can be supportive’
Jill Harkavy-Friedman, the vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said unemployment can be one of several factors that play into a person’s contemplation of suicide.
“Suicide is complicated, and unemployment can serve as a stressor for someone that is already at risk,” she said.
She said that the shame and stigma of struggling can limit people from asking for help, and because of that, it’s important to check in on friends and family and suggest help when it’s needed.
“No one is alone in this right now,” she said.
Harkavy-Friedman said current studies have shown that more people are putting an emphasis on talking about mental health, and that’s an important part of supporting those struggling with unemployment and other stressful issues related to the pandemic. She said that reaching out is the important first step.
“You can’t fix it, but you can be supportive,” she said.
Ben Jedd, communications director for the Department of Workforce Development, said employees have protocols for how to handle calls from people who express they may want to hurt themselves. The training has been in place for decades but has been updated with best practices.
“The Department understands that any time someone is out of work, they face incredible uncertainty on how they are going to pay their bills, buy groceries, afford medication, etc,” he said in an email Monday. “Staff are trained to explain why a claim may be held, but if additional assistance is needed our staff will advise them to apply for other benefits and/or reach out to United Way. Staff are also trained on how to handle a call from a suicidal person and refer them to local crisis lines, and potentially call for help.”
He did not say how many times these tactics have been used since the pandemic began.
Wisconsinites still facing large backlog
As of Nov. 7, more than 74,000 Wisconsin residents are still caught in the backlog of unemployment claims, adding up to over 554,000 weekly claims in need of processing.
A department spokesperson said that since March 15, when coronavirus precautions began, 7.6 million weekly claims have been received. To put that in perspective, between 2016 and 2019, the department received 7.2 million weekly claims.
“The department has been managing four years of work in about seven months,” the spokesperson said.
In an attempt to cut back the amount of time claimants are waiting for their money after the historic increase in claims, the state recently announced a $1.1million partnership with Google Cloud, which will run through Dec. 18.
The Google technology uses predictive analytics based on historical data to process determinations on claims, allowing the department to process claims and release payments quicker.
A second phase of the collaboration will also allow employees to contact claimants electronically, reducing the number of scheduled phone calls. The program will also allow claimants to upload documents online instead of faxing them to the department.
The Google technology will be used in addition to the programs that the department already utilizes.
Jacque said while those updates are positive, they should be baseline operations for the department at this point. He said he’s spoken directly with Gov. Tony Evers in recent weeks about the backlog issue, and the governor has noted how big of a problem unemployment is.
In September, Evers asked for the resignation of Caleb Frostman, who was serving as the secretary of the department. Evers replaced Frostman with Amy Pechacek, the deputy secretary of the Department of Corrections. Evers also placed blame on Republicans at the same time for failing to update the agency’s unemployment systems years ago, when it became clear they were out of date.
Evers has said in the past that the unemployment system will be addressed in the 2021-2023 biennial budget, said Britt Cudaback, his deputy communications director.
“One of the governor’s top priorities in next year’s budget is allocating resources to modernize our unemployment IT system and ensure this backlog of claims will not happen again as it has during COVID-19 and now more than a decade ago during the Great Recession,” she said in an email.
She did not respond to further questions about long-term fixes for the backlog or whether the governor is satisfied with how the backlog is being handled.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said in a release Tuesday that he plans to introduce legislation to deal with the backlog. The legislation would require the backlog to be eliminated and would upgrade the IT system for unemployment with legislative oversight.
“The time it takes to get payments to the unemployed in Wisconsin is one of the worst in the nation,” the release says. “The average time to get the first regular UI payment to a claimant has increased over 50% since May. At the pace the Evers’ administration is working through the backlog, it will take over a year to eliminate it.”
‘Something has got to be done’
Chesner said she hopes the department finds a way to fix its systems and allow people to access the benefits quicker in the future. It’s frustrating to watch the department flounder with the influx of claims.
“The right hand doesn’t seem to be talking to the left hand,” she said of the department. “Something has got to be done.”
She said Johnson still hasn’t received some of the additional federal benefits he qualified for, such as the additional $300 for the weeks between the beginning of August and the beginning of September. She hopes that he’ll still see those funds.
She also worries that if she is laid off from her job sealing blacktop that she could face the same issues again. She worries that she’ll have to wait for more than five months for payments, too —that she’ll have to overdraw her accounts again, or miss payments on their bills.
And, she said, when she gets on Facebook and sees others posting in the unemployment help groups, she feels hopeless.
“These stories that we read, I could cry,” she said. “Why is something not being done about this?”
If you or a loved one are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 for 24/7 assistance.
For help via text, message HOPELINE to 741741.
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.