MADISON – The state’s workforce agency waited weeks in some cases to begin seeking information needed to resolve unemployment claims for Wisconsin residents who lost work as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a new state audit shows.
Tens of thousands of workers seeking unemployment benefits have waited months in many cases to be told whether they would receive compensation, much less get a check.
A new review released by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau shows in many cases the delay was caused by Department of Workforce Development staff who have been slammed by an unprecedented number of claims as a result of the pandemic.
Auditors reviewed a sample of 268 individuals who submitted claims, which revealed in many cases the agency has not resolved the claim even though it had the information to do so, the agency had not requested information it needed to resolve the claim, or the agency had not requested information it needed from employers to resolve the claim.
“Our file review found more than 950 instances when DWD was responsible for time elapsing while it processed the initial claims of the 268 individuals,” auditors wrote.
In one case, an individual submitted their first unemployment claim on April 7 — about two weeks after Gov. Tony Evers issued a stay-at-home order, shuttering many businesses — but DWD staff did not begin to seek information to process the claim for 84 days, the audit shows, and that person did not receive benefits until July.
In another case, four months passed before DWD staff first requested information to determine the claimant wasn’t eligible to receive benefits.
On average, it took the agency 13 weeks to resolve initial unemployment claims of 268 individuals who filed claims in April and had not been paid as of June 20, according to the audit. The longest someone waited was nearly eight months. For 250 people out of that group, DWD was responsible for 11 weeks of the 13-week delay, the audit concluded.
Overall, as of Oct. 10, the agency had paid 75% of claims filed since March 15. More than half of the initial claims were paid in two weeks or fewer, but it took more than five weeks to pay 25% of these claims, the audit showed.
“The average amount of time that DWD took to pay regular program benefits for initial claims declined considerably over time,” auditors wrote.
Lawmaker slams agency
Sen. Rob Cowles, co-chairman of the Legislature’s audit committee, took issue with auditors finding DWD staff worked an average of three hours of overtime per week between March and September while the agency was slammed with claims and thousands were waiting for money, going without meals in some cases.
“In other words, DWD had been sitting on information needed or failing to request the information needed for months while people suffered, some waiting up to 31.5 weeks! But DWD staff still made sure they were home in time for dinner each night. Unacceptable,” Cowles said in a statement.
A DWD spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about why it took weeks or months in some cases to start resolving claims, or whether agency staff approached the Legislature’s finance committee to seek more money for overtime pay.
Amy Pechacek, interim director of the DWD, told auditors in a response to the review that characterizing the delays highlighted in the report as inaction could be misrepresenting the situation.
“Broadly, the data provided in your report accurately reflects the struggles that Wisconsin’s (unemployment) system, like every other state in the nation, faced in responding to the unprecedented number of claims caused by the global pandemic due to our state’s antiquated technology and complicated and inflexible laws,” she wrote to auditors.
“We do not dispute that the pandemic caused delays in the processing of claims due to the volume of work required. We do, however, find that the way the report portrays certain activities as delays or inactions based on a certain point in time may provide an incomplete representation of the activities involved in processing a claim,” she said.
Pechacek said auditors and the agency may not be using the same standards to measure how long such actions should take. She said while agency staff did not have time to review all 268 claimants in the sample auditors analyzed, “it appears that while some timelines associated with your categories may be improved through administrative efficiencies, others may be outside the control of the Department.”
“Nevertheless, the main point that it has taken too long for some individuals to receive their determinations is undisputed,” Pechacek said. “DWD is steadfastly working to resolve all eligibility determinations so that it can resume its timely administration of claims while also implementing long-term changes to prevent and prepare for any similar crises in the future.”
The workforce agency has partnered with Google to expedite the review of claims, shorten adjudication, and make filing a claim more efficient, in an effort to get money to the unemployed faster.
She said the delays Wisconsin is experiencing now could have been shortened if the unemployment system was updated during former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.
At its peak, the state workforce agency received 321,000 weekly claims. In comparison, the highest number of weekly claims during the Great Recession of 2008 was 194,000.
Pechacek said the agency had in place a plan to handle surges of claims as a result of seasonal spikes, and during economic recessions, but “neither were sufficient or predictive to deal with this unprecedented type of situation.”
“Each step in the process and every area of the (unemployment) program saw incredible increases in demand, which required significant staffing increases and operational efficiencies, therefore, the normal process for all claims, described as follows, was subject to delay,” Pechacek said.
In September, Evers appointed Pechacek as director of the agency on a temporary basis after firing former DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman after a previous audit showed fewer than 1% of calls from Wisconsin residents who lost their jobs during the pandemic were answered by agency staff.
The two audits confirm stories the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has heard for months from hundreds of people who were forced out of jobs or work because of the pandemic, many of whom said they had to choose between necessities like food or medicine while waiting for DWD to tell them whether they would receive benefits.
As of last week, 60,203 people were waiting for their claims to be resolved. Pechacek told the Journal Sentinel in November her goal was to clear the backlog of claims by January.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the audit shows the Evers administration has “failed the tens of thousands of Wisconsinites who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.”
Vos said the agency should have extended call center hours, expanded staff more quickly and required employees to work overtime.
“The lack of urgency to help the unemployed is inexcusable and unconscionable,” Vos said.
Evers fired Frostman in September after growing “increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in clearing the claims and getting benefits to those who deserve them despite increased resources and staffing for the agency,” a source close to the governor’s office told the Journal Sentinel at the time.