Unemployment call center to be open around the clock by fall after technology upgrade

MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers’ administration expects to launch new technology within six months to improve its call center to help Wisconsin residents receive their unemployment benefits.

The Department of Workforce Development has secured $2.4 million in federal grant funding to begin the process of overhauling the state’s 1970s-era computer system that failed to deliver timely benefits to hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The first step is replacing the software that runs the agency’s call center, which became a symbol of the unemployment crisis in Wisconsin — nearly every resident who tried to call for help when business closures triggered massive and sudden job losses last year were met with busy signals. 

Workforce Development Secretary Amy Pechacek said the call center will be open 24 hours per day, every day by utilizing artificial intelligence technology to help residents with questions after call center staff are done with their shifts. 

“This is a huge first step for us. We are excited we were able to do this so quickly,” Pechacek said. “This was such a huge pain point for our customers and for the people in this state. So to be able to come out with something that is responsive, we’ve got a lot of great energy around this.”

The center will open a year to the month after Evers fired previous Secretary Caleb Frostman when a state audit showed fewer than 1% of calls from Wisconsin residents who lost their jobs during the pandemic were answered by state officials overseeing unemployment benefits. 

The analysis from the Legislative Audit Bureau showed 93.3% of the 41 million calls to the unemployment call centers between March 15 and June 30 were blocked or callers received a busy signal. 

About 6% of callers hung up before reaching anyone and 0.5% of calls were ultimately answered.

It was a problem at least three administrations and hundreds of lawmakers over the last two decades knew would materialize when job losses spiked. 

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 Department of Workforce Development for help were blocked because of the system’s limits during times of higher unemployment. 

“If the steps that DWD has planned are insufficient and large numbers of calls are blocked in the coming months, DWD may need to take additional action,” state auditors wrote in December 2014.

Pechacek said Wednesday the agency is receiving free consulting services from the U.S. Digital Response nonprofit that advises state governments on benefits systems.

She said the group will be “looking under the hood” to figure out how to upgrade the unemployment system in a way that allows the state to use the upgraded system incrementally instead of waiting until the multi-year overhaul is complete.

Her agency signed a $1.2 million contract on Tuesday with a federal agency known as 18F, which will help state officials identify compatible vendors and what the agency needs to complete the overhaul. 

The work by 18F is being funded with the $2.4 million grant the state recently received. The remaining grant funds can be used for the upgrade of the call center software. Bids for that work are expected next week.

While the call center upgrade will soon get underway, updating the rest of the system will take years. The entire project is expected to cost about $80 million and no agreement had been reached on how to fund it.

Plans for the upgrade come after months of political wrangling over who would get credit for fixing the mess. 

Evers called on lawmakers in January to take up a $5 million plan that would start the upgrade. Within hours, Republicans who control the Legislature shot down the Democratic governor’s proposal, arguing he could begin to address the problems using existing funding.

Ultimately, lawmakers passed a measure last month meant to get the project going. Pechacek said that law allowed the state to enter a contract with 18F much faster than typically happens.

Work on the upgrade has been put off for years. Under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, the state abandoned work on it in 2007 after spending $23 million on it because of delays and cost overruns. Republican Gov. Scott Walker did not revive the project despite a spate of audits that underscored the system’s shortcomings.

Contact Molly Beck and Patrick Marley at molly.beck@jrn.com and patrick.marley@jrn.com.