Wisconsinites are still waiting months on their unemployment claims as the Department of Workforce Development confronts a new wave of claims and state legislators debate updating a system more than 50 years old.
But the department has been mostly silent about the new wave of claims, which ticked up at the beginning of the year, mostly focusing on what it says was the elimination of the backlog last year.
The week of Jan. 3 through Jan. 9, the last week with available data, there were more than 22,500 initial regular unemployment claims, up from over 19,000 the week before and 14,000 the week before that, according to department information. There was no data available for the number of applications for other programs, like the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program.
The rising numbers still pale in comparison to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic from mid-March to early April, as businesses shuttered their doors to combat spread of the virus. The department was slammed with more than 300,000 new claims in that period — numbers that would continue to rise, overwhelming the system and leading to the backlog in processing claims.
No numbers were available on how many people are awaiting adjudication, either. In December, department secretary-designee Amy Pechacek said there were 9,000 claims assigned to adjudicators that were waiting to be evaluated.
When asked how long it will take to adjudicate all the claims currently waiting, Alaina Knief, a communications specialist for the department, was not specific.
“The length of time a case takes to be resolved in adjudication is dependent on the specific circumstances of the claimant’s case,” she wrote in an email. “Some cases may take a few days, some may take weeks depending on the complexity of the issue(s) and how long it takes to receive information back from interested parties.”
The department has more than 500 adjudicators working on claims.
The state has faced other issues in the new year, including a drawn-out process to program additional $300 payments authorized by the federal Continued Assistance Act in December. And more changes could be in store after the incoming Biden administration proposed boosting that amount to $400 and extending the program through September.
The department announced Friday morning they had started paying out the $300 benefits, weeks after other states started paying out the additional benefit.
Wisconsin was behind several other states, such as Illinois, Texas, Tennessee and New York, according to the FPUC Tracker, a website dedicated to tracking implementation of the payments.
Knief said that while the department was able to use some of the programming that disbursed the previous $600 payments implemented by the CARES Act last year, the new programming is more complex.
The department is also watching as Gov. Tony Evers argues with state legislators over funding a major overhaul of the unemployment system, which could cost up to $90 million and take three to seven years to implement.
Legislators said this week that they will likely end a special session called by the governor without taking up the bill updating unemployment, insisting that Evers has the power to update the system without the special session with money already available in state accounts.
In the meantime, Wisconsinites are still waiting to hear what comes next for their claims.
Here are the stories of some of those still waiting for word on their claims after the clearance of the backlog:
‘I don’t know what to do’
Warren Enström of Milwaukee has been waiting on unemployment since June when he was furloughed from the Milwaukee Art Museum. He first started applying for unemployment on June 12, and since then has been waiting on payments from the department.
Shortly after being furloughed, he was laid off from another job at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He’s still working at Alverno College, where he teaches music courses.
Enström, 27, was told the delay on his unemployment was because he works as an educator, and his case had to be handled differently because educators typically don’t work during the summer months, and don’t qualify for unemployment during that time.
But he said he was contacted twice by an adjudicator focused on education-related cases, and that issue was worked out. Now he’s just waiting for the claim involving the art museum to be dealt with.
He said there was no movement on his unemployment account for months, until December when Evers announced Pechacek would be taking over leadership of the Department of Workforce Development. After the announcement, all the holds disappeared from his account, but nothing else happened. It’s not clear at this point what’s holding up the money.
“I don’t have any holds now but also haven’t received any money,” he said. “I don’t know what to do or why it’s been delayed for so long.”
Enström said he’s in between jobs at Alverno, but he’s been lucky to get some temp work tutoring. In the meantime, he’s had to make tough decisions, like halting the money he was putting aside for retirement.
“I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to rely on credit cards to put bills on and I’ll pay them off later, but that’s a dangerous game, of course,” he said. “If I had a well-timed disaster, it could really mess things up for me.”
He’s now been waiting seven months for his unemployment. He’s not sure where to turn for help, and recently he started reaching out to his state representatives to see if they can get the department to take another look at his claims. But so far, he’s heard nothing.
“It’s a weird situation,” he said.
‘It’s been stressful’
Christine Gerosa of Brookfield was laid off from her human resources job of nearly seven years in June.
Things were OK for a while, she said, as she was getting severance checks from her former company. But after three months, those checks stopped, and unable to find a new job, she applied for unemployment. When she submitted her application, it was flagged because so many months had passed since she was laid off.
After talking to a claims specialist, who entered her pay stubs into the unemployment system, Gerosa assumed she’d start receiving benefits. But as the new year came and went, no checks from unemployment arrived.
When she asked the department why she wasn’t receiving her checks, a claims specialist told her she was unable to get benefits because she was receiving Social Security.
“I called the Social Security office, worried someone was using my number,” she said. “They said no and offered to give me a letter proving it. Then I called unemployment and they said it was an error on their side.”
Gerosa was told the initial claims specialist mistakenly checked a box on Gerosa’s application, disqualifying her from payments. Since October, she’s been fighting to have that checkmark removed from her account so she can receive the unemployment payments she needs. She’s continued looking for jobs, but at 62, hasn’t yet found one, she said. She’s always been the breadwinner of the household, she said, but now things are starting to get difficult with no income.
“These things have hit us, we’ve had to delve into savings,” Gerosa said. “But eventually that’s going to run out, and I don’t want to have to tap into my 401K.”
At this point, she’s wondering why it’s taking months for the department to fix an issue they caused.
“It’s been stressful,” she said.
After her initial conversation with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Gerosa said she finally heard from the department and her application was fixed. An employee said her case had been overlooked by an administrative law judge who had been out sick, and the next day, the months of money showed up in Gerosa’s account.
“I was able to pay my mortgage, car payment, homeowner’s insurance and other bills with it,” she said.
‘There has been nothing’
David Tatarowicz of Brown Deer has been waiting to hear back from the department since he first starting filing in April.
He owns a furniture finishing business and began filing for unemployment as soon as it became apparent that the pandemic was going to have an effect on him. He’s filed every week since April but has yet to get any word from the department aside from a letter saying his initial claim was approved, and informing him to start applying weekly.
“There has been nothing. No payments, no word,” he said.
He said the only information he’s been able to get about the department and what’s going on with claims has been from the news. He tried calling the department several times during the beginning of the pandemic but was unable to get through, as the department was only answering a small percentage of calls. He tried emailing and wrote a letter to the department.
“You can’t ask them anything,” he said.
As his wait approaches nearly 10 months, Tatarowicz said things have been hard without the payments. Thinking he’d start getting unemployment within a month of filing last year, he budgeted to have about 30 days without income. That time came and went. Then he hoped to have a payment in 60 days.
“It’s been a struggle, you know,” he said. “You’ve got to dip into savings and whatever you’ve got to do.”
After talking with the Journal Sentinel, Tatarowicz tried to contact the department again and was finally able to reach a claims specialist, who told him he’d been filing for the wrong program — he’d been submitting his claims to regular unemployment instead of the PUA program, which was established to help those who typically don’t qualify for regular unemployment, like self-employed people.
“She said they’d gotten my information in April and I’ve been filing on the wrong system and no one has ever called or asked,” he said. “She saw in my account that no one had ever corresponded with me.”
When asked about Tatarowicz’s claim, Knief said that Tatarowicz’s claim had been denied, but he never applied for PUA after denial, instead continuing to file weekly for unemployment. Knief said the department planned to reach out to Tatarowicz to help him with his next step in applying.
He hopes to see his claims move forward now but is unsure what’s going to happen next.
“I’ve seen better customer service from Amazon, and that’s pretty sad,” he said.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.