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SOS: Unemployment claim fulfilled — 18 months later
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SOS | BUREAUCRACY

SOS: Unemployment claim fulfilled — 18 months later

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Alvernice Sellers called and called and called, “and every time I talked to them, they’d tell me something different.”

The “them” was the Department of Workforce Development, and the “something different” was the multitude of excuses the agency supplied for why it couldn’t fulfill Sellers’ unemployment claim.

Until one of his calls went to SOS.

Residents in Hialeah, Florida, lined up to get unemployment forms during the coronavirus pandemic on April 8. A reported 520,000 Floridians have applied for unemployment since March 15.

Sellers said he’d been working part-time in the restaurant business and full-time in home health care until March of 2020, when the former was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic and a change in his client’s case shut him out of the latter.

Sellers filed for unemployment and waited. Then called DWD and waited, and called and waited some more, providing whatever paperwork the agency said it needed.

Finally, in September, he believes, he got a letter from DWD saying his claim was approved. Turned out it wasn’t. The good news was that by February, he had found work again in the restaurant business.

“They ran me around for a year, almost a year and a half,” Sellers said. “Every time I called, they’d tell me something different. I said, ‘it can’t be all this stuff.’”

Sellers contacted SOS in late August and on Aug. 31 SOS contacted DWD on his behalf, and received something of a standard response.

First, said communications director Jennifer Sereno, the agency would need Sellers’ formal OK before it could discuss Sellers’ case. Telling DWD that Sellers had come to SOS specifically for help with his case wasn’t formal OK enough.

Second, if Sellers wanted help, he should call the agency’s claimant assistance line, she said. Sellers, of course, hadn’t had much luck with that line to date.

SOS explained as much to Sereno and — what the heck — provided Sellers with the not-so-secret journalists-only line to DWD’s communications department.

Sellers later said he called it, Sereno said a DWD official called him, and Sellers said that official’s name was “Laura” and that Laura said the problem all along had been that his former home health employer hadn’t been responding to DWD’s requests for information on Sellers’ work history.

Laura, Sellers said, apologized for the 18-month wait and said that regardless of whether the home health employer got back to DWD, DWD would pay his benefits.

“I was like, yeah right,” Sellers said.

And yet, lo and behold, he checked his bank account and there was about $11,000 from the state for March through August of last year. On Sept. 17, DWD said he had been paid in full for all his monthly claims, a total of $14,264 after state and federal taxes.

Sellers gave DWD permission to discuss his case with SOS, and Sereno said among its challenges were the “timeliness of filing, unresponsive and uncooperative former employers, and the fact that some types of employment are not covered for unemployment insurance benefits.”

But “through the diligent work of DWD staff members, unresponsive past employers were again contacted, documents with conflicting information were re-examined, and updated information was then analyzed to determine Mr. Sellers’ eligibility under state and federal programs,” she said in an email.

DWD has pointed to its outdated claims-processing system as a primary reason why people like Sellers had trouble getting unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

A year ago, the agency was looking at a backlog of unfilled claims of more than 700,000, but announced in December that the backlog had been eliminated, though some claimants continue to report delays in the processing, adjudication and appeals process related to their claims.

Since then, efforts to overhaul the system have moved slowly. Republicans rejected an effort by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to spend $79 million to upgrade the system. Most recently, the state has allocated $2.4 million in federal funds for improvements.

“The experience of Mr. Sellers, and thousands of others throughout Wisconsin during the COVID-19 pandemic, reinforces DWD’s strategic IT modernization and staffing efforts as well as the need for legislative policy reforms,” Sereno said.

“Complex qualification and fraud-prevention procedures” and “past-employer verification processes at times create significant hurdles to obtaining benefits,” she said, but changing them would require legislation.


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