GOP lawmaker blames Evers Administration for unemployment backlog; DWD works to increase staffing

MADISON -- Each day amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has received thousands of new claims for unemployment insurance benefits. Still, some applicants feel there's not enough being done to process them in a timely fashion.

One state lawmaker on Thursday, May 7 blamed Governor Tony Evers' administration for the backlog of claims; however, another state lawmaker said he believes the DWD is doing what it can to expedite the process.

"I haven't received any money whatsoever," said Angelyn Kingston on Thursday, May 7. "Nothing. Zero."

Angelyn Kingston

On the other end of a busy signal, Kingston said her patience is wearing thin. A teacher's aide for the School District of Waukesha, she tells FOX6 News that she was furloughed in early April, and filed for unemployment insurance right away. As of Thursday, her claims were still pending.

"What is my next step?" said Kingston. "I don't know. That's where I'm at right now."

The DWD announced on April 29 the Unemployment Insurance Division had received a total of 479,596 applications and distributed more than $290 million in unemployment benefits since March 15.

An additional 24,000 applications have been received between Sunday, May 3 and Thursday, May 7 -- adding up to more than a half-million initial claims to date.

State Rep. Scott Allen

On the steps of the DWD building in Madison Thursday, State Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) said he believes Governor Tony Evers' administration is to blame for a backlog in claims.

"The Legislature gave the administration the tools it needed to meet the challenges of shutting down the state for an unknown period of time," said Rep. Allen. "Unfortunately, the Evers administration continues to fail to rise to the challenge."

State Senator Chris Larson

Meanwhile, State Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said there's no doubt the process is a frustrating one, but believes the DWD is making an effort to speed it up by hiring more staff.

"I share the frustration," said Larson. "I've got friends and relatives in the same situation. I know there are efforts by the DWD to hire more people to make sure those experiencing the pain of unemployment are getting their calls addressed as quickly as possible. I think making sure people are informed that their benefits will go out from the date of unemployment, not the date they are approved is important so there isn't that anxiety."

FOX6 News on Thursday learned the DWD's contract with a call center was finalized -- to bring on an additional 500 people to answer phones, and 100 others to process paperwork. Additionally, a spokesman for the DWD said they are currently hiring claims specialists, adjudicators, and other positions. He also said that employees from other state agencies are being reassigned to the DWD's Unemployment Insurance division to increase staffing.

Below are State Rep. Allen's remarks regarding unemployment from Thursday's press conference:

"On April 9, my office received our first email asking for assistance in contacting the Department of Workforce Development from Aaron, a 19-year-old Waukesha resident, who was denied unemployment due to a clerical error. This seemingly-isolated event has developed into a consistently devastating trend.  This problem affects workers across the state, including the 97th Assembly District.

Many have not been as lucky as Aaron, whose claim issues were resolved in one day. Many people have waited over 7 weeks for their unemployment claims to process.

Time and time again, constituents describe being told during the online application process that they needed to contact the Department of Workforce Development by phone.  They call hundreds of times, and the phone is never answered or the call is dropped.

On April 15, Governor Evers signed 2019 Act 185 into law, the State’s response to COVID-19.

As requested by the Administration, the Legislature, in a broadly bi-partisan effort, included provisions related to the Department of Workforce Development and unemployment assistance.

The act suspended the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance.

And Importantly, the Act authorizes the Department of Administration to transfer state employees from one agency to another, and adjust the limitations on the number of hours a limited-term employee may work per year.

In other words, the Legislature gave the Administration the tools it needed to meet the challenges of shutting down the state for an unknown period of time.

Unfortunately, the Evers Administration continues to fail to rise to the challenge.  It has been 22 days since Act 185 became law.  On Tuesday, I wrote Sec. Frostman to ask whether state employees have actually been moved to the Department of Workforce Development.

I requested a response, and have not heard back.

We need to be demanding more answers from the Department of Workforce Development.

How many unprocessed unemployment claims are there?

Has the Department shifted and trained employees to handle the increased amount of claims?

When will citizens be receiving their unemployment insurance and their federal pandemic unemployment assistance funds? Relief that was promised and has yet to be delivered.

People talk about the Madison “bubble.”  It’s the idea that bureaucrats are insulated from real people and don’t feel the consequences of their policy decisions.

It is only fair to my constituents that I give them a voice and acknowledge them while standing here.

Randy, a school bus driver.

Rhonda, who owns a cleaning service.

Jennifer, a teacher’s aide.

Leona, who runs a catering service.

Steve, a food service worker.

Stephanie, a daycare worker.

Shannon, a gym owner

Lynell, who works for an airline

Jamie, an interior designer.

Kayleigh, a health care worker

Mistie, a salon esthetician

Anthony, a Lyft driver

Kristi, a bartender

Jim, a health care worker

To my knowledge, their claims are either still pending with DWD after weeks and weeks of waiting, or simple errors have caused their claims to be denied or revoked. They deserve better.

These aren’t bigwig corporate CEO’s with a golden parachute, who are trying to improve the price of the company stock. These are normal people whose lives and livelihoods are being destroyed. They live in working-class neighborhoods, they are my neighbors.

It’s time for the Evers Administration and Sec. Frostman to do their jobs.

If they won’t reopen Wisconsin, they should at least start caring about the people who they’re forcing onto the unemployment rolls."