'People are hurting out there:' Wisconsin Republicans urge faster processing of unemployment claims

MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans sparred with leaders in Democratic Gov. Tony Evers administration during a sometimes heated legislative hearing Wednesday, May 27, faulting them for not doing enough to quickly process surging unemployment claims during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate labor committee hearing laid bare the partisan debate over who is to blame for the backlog of unprocessed claims. That backlog may continue into October, depending on staffing levels, Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman told the committee.

The unprecedented surge in unemployment claims caused by the pandemic resulted in a more than quadrupling of Wisconsin's unemployment rate to 14.1% in April, its highest since The Great Depression. The average number of weekly claims skyrocketed from 45,000 a week to 300,000.

As of Saturday, 2.4 million claims had been received but only about 1.7 million had been processed, according to DWD. Of the roughly 728,000 unpaid claims, about 11% were ineligible.

Republicans accused Frostman of not being prepared for the surge in claims and not doing enough when it arrived.

“Why wouldn’t there be more transfer of employees, get the cavalry coming in?” asked committee chair Sen. Steve Nass, a Republican from Whitewater. “People are hurting out there. Tearjerkers. When I was unemployed one time, I know how it is. ... It’s scary.”

Frostman recommended that the state update its computer systems, increase the weekly unemployment benefit and permanently do away with a one-week waiting period to receive benefits. Republicans implemented the waiting period in 2011 but last month voted to waive it until February.

GOP Sen. Chris Kapenga bristled at Democrats' arguments that policies enacted by Republicans in recent years have made it harder for the unemployed to collect benefits.

“I don’t want to hear another person say it's all the Republicans' fault," Kapenga said. More state workers could be transferred to work on processing claims and to expand a call center so it can stay open around the clock, rather than from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., he said.

Frostman said all efforts are focused on processing the claims faster. He testified that a 50-year-old computer system has “hamstrung” the state’s ability to process claims more quickly.

“One of the most glaring lessons learned coming out of the Great Recession was the desperate need to modernize the unemployment insurance base benefits system, yet Wisconsin is still saddled with one of the most antiquated and inflexible systems in the country,” Frostman said.

Wisconsin was the last state to begin issuing the $600-a-week in supplemental unemployment benefits from the federal government, according to The Hamilton Project, an initiative by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute. Wisconsin first began sending payments on April 29 and has paid over $870 million in benefits.

Noah Williams, director of the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said spikes in unemployment and the challenges faced in Wisconsin were not out of line with national averages. However, Williams said “other states have certainly done better in terms of processing claims.”

Also Wednesday, the state set records for the largest single-day increases in COVID-19 deaths at 22 and new cases at 599. The 10,330 tests administered was also a daily high. The percentage of positives out of all tests given was 6%, up from 4% the day before.

In total, 539 people have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin and there are nearly 16,500 confirmed cases, the state Department of Health Services reported.

The records in deaths and new cases were reported exactly two weeks after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers’ stay-at-home order, leaving a patchwork of local restrictions in place.

Andrea Palm, the state’s health secretary, said she couldn't say with confidence that the new cases are related to the state’s “safer at home” order being tossed out by the court. The Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed a second challenge to the order as moot, while Evers announced a new $200 million grant program for local governments paid for with federal money.