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Audit: DWD largely responsible for delays when processing unemployment claims
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DEPARTMENT OF WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT | UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS

Audit: DWD largely responsible for delays when processing unemployment claims

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The state’s Department of Workforce Development was responsible for 11 of the 13 weeks it took, on average, for the department to resolve initial unemployment claims filed in the early weeks of the pandemic, a new audit estimates.

DWD has dealt with a persistent backlog of unemployment claims since the COVID-19 pandemic began, prompting criticism and calls for action from state Republicans who place the blame on Gov. Tony Evers’ administration. At the same time, DWD officials have said an unprecedented number of claims, paired with GOP-authored unemployment laws, complicate the adjudication process and exacerbate delays.

In a new audit released Monday, the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau randomly selected a sample of 268 people who filed initial unemployment claims between March 15 and April 11, but had not yet received payment as of June 20. The audit found that it took an average of 13 weeks to resolve those initial claims, with the most common reasons for delays involving instances when DWD had not resolved issues despite having all the necessary information to do so.

“Because the size of our sample is statistically significant, we can reasonably expect that the results of our review are representative of all individuals who had filed initial claims during this four-week period but had not been paid program benefits as of June 20, 2020,” the audit concluded.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee will discuss the audit on Wednesday.

DWD reported last week that almost 94.5% of the more than 8.5 million weekly unemployment claims filed since March 15 had been processed. Nearly 51,000 claimants were considered to be part of the adjudication backlog — meaning they have waited beyond the standard 21 days it takes for DWD to make a decision on a claim.

Of the 268 individuals in LAB’s sample, 250 claims were resolved as of November, while 70 of the 144 individuals whose initial claims were denied ended up filing new claims. Of those 70 individuals who filed new claims, 34 were paid benefits as of Oct. 10. The remaining 18 claims were awaiting action from DWD or the claimant has appealed the department’s decision.

The audit also found that the people sampled experienced an average of more than 3.5 instances when DWD was responsible for delays. The most common delays occurred when DWD had not resolved issues even though it had the information to do so or when DWD had not requested from a claimant or employer information needed to resolve a claim.

An ‘incomplete representation’

In a letter to State Auditor Joe Chrisman, Amy Pechacek, DWD transition director, said DWD does not dispute that the pandemic and increased workload caused delays in processing claims, but said “we do, however, find that the way the report portrays certain activities as delays or inactions based on a certain point in time may provide an incomplete representation of the activities involved in processing a claim.”

“We did not have sufficient time to review all 268 individuals included in your sample, but it appears that while some timelines associated with your categories may be improved through administrative efficiencies, others may be outside the control of the Department,” Pechacek said in the letter.

In response to the latest audit, state Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, criticized Evers and his administration for not acting sooner to extend call center hours, transfer state employees or require DWD staff to work overtime to process the backlog of claims.

“The lack of urgency to help the unemployed is inexcusable and unconscionable,” Vos said in a statement.

LAB’s most recent audit is the latest example of ongoing challenges at DWD to adjust to the strain caused by skyrocketing unemployment claims during the pandemic. In September, LAB found that of the 41.1 million telephone calls received by DWD call centers between March 15 and June 30, only 0.5% ultimately were answered. The vast majority of calls were blocked, while some callers hung up before receiving an answer.

Since taking over the department in September after Evers asked former department Secretary Caleb Frostman to resign, Pechacek has required some DWD employees to work four weeks of mandatory overtime, in addition to voluntary overtime among other employees, and entered into an agreement with Google Cloud to expedite the review of claims.

Laws complicated the claims process

Pechacek also pointed to a series of state laws passed by the GOP-led Legislature between 2011 and 2018 that “complicated the unemployment process and slowed the time it takes for unemployed workers to receive their benefits.”

For example, Wisconsin, like some other states, requires investigations into why an employee left any job over the previous 18 months. Other states may only require investigations into the employee’s most recent job.

“Given the anecdotal understanding that some of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, namely tourism and hospitality, employ workers who often work multiple jobs and experience high turnover, investigating all separations from every employer over the course of 18 months can be quite time-consuming,” Pechacek said.

In response to the ongoing backlog of claims, Vos and Assembly Republicans have proposed legislation that would require DWD to eliminate the backlog within 30 days, further expand call center hours and include “a reduction of the salaries of DWD bureaucrats if these issues don’t get resolved.”

Both Vos and incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said last week it’s unlikely Republicans will support Evers’ proposals to renew a waiver of the state’s one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, as well as a waiver of work-search requirements to receive benefits. Both waivers were approved back in April, the last time the Legislature convened on any pandemic-related legislation.

The Republican leaders also said they hope any federal coronavirus package does not include additional unemployment payments, as the previous package did.


Fave 5: State government reporter Mitchell Schmidt shares his top stories of 2020

Choosing my five favorite stories of 2020 seems almost paradoxical.

This year has felt like one exhausting slog of pandemic stories, state Legislature updates and, oh yeah, a presidential election thrown in for good measure. Thanks to a split government, there's been no shortage of politically-charged stories here in Wisconsin and the partisan divide has, maybe unsurprisingly, felt as wide as ever throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

I don't know if "favorite" is the best way to describe them, but here are a few stories from 2020 that stood out to me:

Back in March, Gov. Tony Evers issued the state's first public health emergency in response to the then-emerging pandemic. At the time, Wisconsin had reported eight total cases of COVID-19.

As the pandemic progressed, positive cases and deaths climbed and state lawmakers battled over the appropriate response. In May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers' stay-at-home order, a decision that still resonates today with the state's coronavirus-related measures.

One story I was particularly excited about before I officially started working for the State Journal was the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. However, like most things this year, the pandemic drastically altered that plan.

In non-pandemic news, the state in October formally denied billions of dollars in state tax credits to Foxconn Technology Group — a story we managed to get before any other outlet in the state through records requests and sourcing.

Lastly, in November I worked on a story about how GOP-drawn legislative maps once again disproportionately benefited Republicans in state elections. Wisconsin is headed toward another legal battle next year when the next batch of 10-year maps are drawn.

Feel free to read my top stories below, or check out my other state government articles from this year, (by my count, there have been more than 300 so far).

Also, thanks to all the subscribers out there. This year has been challenging on so many people, so your support is so much appreciated.

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