DWD chief sets goal of clearing unemployment backlog before 2021 after Google helps clear 103K claims in one week

MADISON – Wisconsin’s unemployment crisis could be resolved by the end of December, the new leader of the state’s workforce development agency said Tuesday. 

Amy Pechacek, interim director of the Department of Workforce Development, said Google technology allowed the agency, which has struggled for months, to clear 103,000 claims in one week. 

“So that is going to have an immediate and significant positive impact on about 21,000 folks over the next couple of days,” she said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The backlog of claims, which has affected tens of thousands of people, should be cleared in “weeks, not months,” Pechacek said. As of Nov. 14, more than 72,000 people were waiting to hear about their claims, with 542,784 weekly claims waiting for adjudication.

The goal is to catch up before January, she said. 

Pechacek took over the agency in September after Gov. Tony Evers asked former DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman to resign following an audit that showed nearly all calls to the agency regarding unemployment claims weren’t answered, among other issues. 

The backlog has kept thousands of Wisconsinites waiting on desperately-needed unemployment payments during the coronavirus pandemic, with some waiting as long as eight months as the backlog grew.

Amy Pechacek

But Pechacek said the department is now able to work through claims in the backlog at a much faster speed, and those waiting to hear from the department should start to see movement on their claims within the next few weeks. 

Pechacek said the partnership with Google Cloud, which the agency entered into in October, allowed staff to clear 103,000 claims over the last week — a 4,000% increase in productivity. 

To move through the claims, Google spent time looking at both the backlog and the past two years of claims history to put together analytics and data to help break down issues in the backlog and make them easier to adjudicate.

The department just received the information back from Google and began implementing it over the past week, which has led to the drawdown of the backlog. 

To put it in perspective, Pechacek said, the department has 500 adjudicators working full time, and they’re typically able to remove about 2,500 holds on claims per week. That’s dramatically lower than what the Google technology helped produce. 

Confusing applications

A big reason claims were held up was a confusing application, Pechacek said. Applicants were answering incorrectly whether they are able and available to work, she said.

Google technology caught this issue and DWD is now in the process of rewriting and simplifying the application.

“We’re hoping if we make this application easier to understand, and more user-friendly for people … that we can prevent a backlog from ever happening again,” Pechacek said. 

The agency has fielded 8.2 million claims between March and November of 2020 as hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were pushed into job losses amid the coronavirus pandemic. In all of 2019, the agency saw about 287,000 claims. 

While the percentage of cleared claims is high, there still have been tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin who have waited for weeks and months for benefits — some losing homes, or going without meals and health care, according to interviews over the last nine months. 

The backlog first appeared in the spring following Evers’ stay-at-home order that shuttered scores of businesses.  Frostman estimated it would be cleared by early summer, then Labor Day. But those dates came and went.

Pechacek said Tuesday she did not know what Frostman factored into those estimates. 

The department entered into the $1.1 million agreement with Google Cloud in mid-October, with the aim of cutting down the time people were waiting to have their claims approved or denied.

The analytics were the first part of the agreement, meant to run through Dec. 18.

Pechacek said the agreement will last longer than that, though. Phase two, beginning later this month, will create the ability for claimants to submit paperwork online and communicate with department staff over the internet instead of only through pre-scheduled phone calls.

The department is also looking into the development of an app, to help make the process of filing for unemployment easier for those who may only have access to the internet through a phone. 

“We really want to make this as user friendly as possible,” she said. 

Out of date systems

Pechacek took over DWD after working as deputy secretary of the Department of Corrections. At the time Evers fired Frostman, Evers also blamed Republicans for failing to update the agency’s unemployment computer systems years ago, when it became clear they were out of date. 

At least three administrations and hundreds of lawmakers over the last two decades knew that the state’s unemployment system was outdated and had trouble keeping up when job losses spike. 

For instance, lawmakers and state officials knew in 2007 that the system to process unemployment claims needed an upgrade, and in 2014 an audit showed that at one point up to 80% of calls to the DWD for help were blocked because of the system’s limits during times of higher unemployment.

Pechacek said the age and ability of the system is certainly a problem, and she is working with the governor to ensure a new system is implemented with the next budget.

But even after the money is approved for a new system, two or more years will be needed to put the system into place and get it up and running. 

In the meantime, the state will continue to utilize the partnership with Google for tasks like data entry in order to keep the unemployment system running quickly and efficiently. 

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Contact Laura Schulte and Molly Beck at leschulte@jrn.com and molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow on Twitter at @SchulteLaura and @MollyBeck.