'The system is not built for problems:' Attorneys point to Gov. Walker reforms amid unemployment delays

The unemployment calls and messages keep coming into the FOX6 newsroom. The state beefed up staffing to help with the backlog of claims, but is that enough?

Wisconsin's unemployment system is kind of like the river story. Maybe you've heard it. You see someone drowning in the water, pull him to safety and then you see another person and another. You could stay downstream and keep pulling people out of the water, but it's even better to go upstream and figure out why they're falling in in the first place.

As unemployment claims flooded the system, Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development went from 500 to 1,900 people working in the Unemployment Insurance Division.

More people say their claims are now finally getting processed. The state says its reduced its pending workload by two thirds over the last two months, so we're starting to pull people out of the water downstream, but there are still plenty falling in upstream.

"My name is Katlyn Hendricks, and I am a student at UW-Oshkosh," said Katlyn Hendricks.

Katlyn lost her on-campus job when COVID-19 hit.

"I have student loans," she said.

Unemployment was her only option.

"I had to answer questions that I kind of misunderstood," said Hendricks. "It was just more waiting, more waiting. They said my wages were excluded because I'm a student and I work on campus."

Katlyn learned if she had the same exact job, but was not a student, her claim likely would have sailed right through.

"It's just frustrating because we're going to college, we're in debt and we just completely get shoved out for that one little thing," she said.

Katlyn's not the only one.

Former Governor Scott Walker

Marilyn Townsend, Dane County attorney focusing on job-related issues, and Victor Forberger, labor and employment attorney, say the root problem is a familiar face. Former Governor Scott Walker says his unemployment reforms cracked down on fraud and gave people incentive to work, but Marilyn and Victor say the system is now too complicated. Their clients' claims are delayed or denied over things like student status, confusion over work search requirements, questions about jobs they held last year, and accusations of fraud when they make honest mistakes.

"They've made mistakes because the system is indecipherable," said Forberger.

"The system is not built for problems, and when people don't fit into a particular black and white question and answer, they are kicked out, and they are trying to figure out, how do I get my money?" said Townsend.

If you're denied, you can appeal, but as of July 25, the state had 5,080 appeals pending.

"The backlog now has been siphoned to the hearing office," said Forberger.

By the way, all this is operating on an outdated IT system that could take $50 million to $100 million to fix, so even if you add more staff to process claims downstream, if the very design of the system is stalling people upstream, there will still be unemployment delays.

"It's turning the unemployment system into a lottery," said Forberger.

Democrats are pushing state legislation that would undo several of Walker's unemployment reforms.

Former Governor Scott Walker

FOX6 News asked Walker for an interview. His spokesperson sent a statement calling for more staff to process claims, saying, "Governor Walker's reforms were aimed at lifting people off the unemployment rolls and into a job."

FOX6 News had a lot more questions, but Walker's camp wouldn't answer. We also asked Republican legislative leaders to weigh in. They did not respond, leaving the Department of Workforce Development to figure out where it can streamline without the Legislature.

"And so, we've got a lot of work cut out for us, but we're hopeful that we can uncomplicate the unemployment insurance process going forward," said Caleb Frostman, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

The debate about how to solve the problem upstream isn't going away. Unfortunately, neither is the rush of unemployment claims.

Employment attorneys say the cut-and-dried cases are getting paid out pretty quickly. It's the more nuanced ones that are having problems.