Wisconsin Legislature masks (copy)

Some members of the state Assembly wear masks as they consider legislation and vote last month on a bill to give the unemployed more benefits, provide insurance protections for those infected with coronavirus and shield health-care providers from liability.

New numbers released Thursday show that Wisconsin lost 439,400 jobs in a five-week period after the state went into lockdown in March, a jaw-dropping number that has no historical parallel.

“Today's report shows the significant impact that the COVID-19 global pandemic has had on the Wisconsin economy and underscores the importance of rationally and safely reopening our state,” said Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman in a press release announcing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. “A strategy based on science that reduces the likelihood of additional outbreaks and further economic instability is the only way to get Wisconsin back on the path of historically low unemployment rates that the state was experiencing prior to COVID-19.”

In April the state saw the unemployment rate soar to 14.1%, according to BLS figures, after an extended period of near historic lows. In April last year, Wisconsin had an unemployment rate of 3.3%. In March it stood at 3.1%.

The total number of job losses includes 385,900 non-farm private-sector jobs along with government jobs lost.

In the weeks following the state’s March 25 “safer at home” order, the state’s Division of Unemployment Insurance was buried under an avalanche of new claims from people sidelined by the pandemic.

Saddled with an antiquated computer system and heading into the crisis with minimal staff, the division has been hammered by more than 2 million claims, according to the Workforce Development.

According to DWD spokesman Tyler Tichenor, the computer programs for processing claims date back to the 1970's.  

"Our current systems are inflexible, which makes it slow and costly to implement even the smallest changes in federal or state law and policy," he said.

While the number of claims is tapering off — 31,851 claims last week compared to 116,129 in mid-March — about a third of 2.1 million claims still haven’t been paid.

“I have four weeks pending of unemployment due to the coronavirus layoff and can't get any assistance,” one reader wrote on a Capital Newspapers tip line, adding that when the phone lines aren’t crashed because of the volume, callers are put on terminal hold. “I've used the contact form in the unemployment website multiple times and that's been just as worthless with no reply. When we need our government they are failing us.”

Heather Pettenger, of Madison, puts the number of calls she made to the Department of Workforce Development in the hundreds. But the out-of-work YMCA accountant never reached a live body.

She tried email, to no avail.

She finally sought help from state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, and after six weeks finally hit pay dirt.

“After continuous contact with my state Senator Risser and the emails I sent out this weekend, my determination was finally approved and I got all of my back pay yesterday,” she said in an email on Wednesday. “I'm not sure why a liaison was needed to get my determination approved but I'm just thankful it finally worked out after weeks and weeks of waiting.”

Pettenger credits Risser with getting her unemployment mess straightened out.

“I think the DWD just fast-tracked it because I contacted my State Senator,” she said, calling the whole episode “bonkers.”

Plenty of other frustrated applicants are taking the same approach, and it seems to be working.

State Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, said her office is handling about a dozen cases a week, as well as calls from people in other districts, who are directed to their own representatives.

“Our office has been able to assist some constituents in resolving their cases,” she said. “We were able to resolve two cases just today. For some constituents whose benefits were held up because of a pending determination in their file, we have been able to connect them with DWD to resolve the issue. For others who might not be as tech-savvy, my office has been able to help facilitate DWD contacting them directly by phone.”

Terry Tuschen, chief of staff for Risser, said the office is getting “hundreds of requests.”

“Currently we are receiving roughly 10 unemployment inquires per day,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any pattern, really depends on the day.”

He added, “We anticipate that our advocacy on behalf of constituents who contact us is helpful, although we have limited feedback.”

Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Madison, said his office has seen a “significant increase” in calls from constituents seeking help. 

The Department of Workforce Development announced last week that it’s hiring people to fill 315 positions, as well as contracting with two call center vendors, one of which is expected to add 500 work-at-home employees when fully staffed. The other will hire 40 workers to handle claims from people who didn’t previously qualify for unemployment, including gig and nonprofit workers.

In addition, another vendor will dedicate 100 workers to adjudicate and process claims.

While those vendors gear up, applicants are advised to apply online, and to have persistence and patience if they need further help.

“If they need to speak with someone to file or complete their initial claim, we recognize it is difficult to make contact right now,” said DWD's Tichenor. “They will be allowed to backdate their claims as appropriate when they are able to complete that claim. We are optimistic the addition of the call center vendor and onboarding staff will help with this pain point.”