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'A nightmare:' Some struggle to get through when applying for unemployment benefits

’A nightmare: ’ Some struggle to get through when applying for unemployment benefits

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Department of Workforce Development says the Unemployment Insurance Division received more than 1.5 million calls during the week of March 22 and some say they're struggling to get through. 

"A nightmare, a total nightmare," said Mary Jo O'Brien, who worked her last shift at a restaurant on St.Patrick's Day. 

She started the application process for unemployment online, but she said she received a message to call the office. 

"We tried that, I was on hold for five minutes and then they just hung up on me and that was it."

She said she hasn't been able to get through since. 

"It’s been super scary. I’ve already been out of work for almost ten days," said Karen Green. 

Green said she also started the application process online, but needed a new Wisconsin ID. When she went to update the information, she said she was told to call the office. 

"Went pretty quickly, got through, but he basically said 'I can’t help you' and 'You have to call back.'"

She's been waking up at 7:30 a.m. to try to be the first in line. She says she's been calling around 80 times a day, but hasn't been able to get through. 

"I'm a transplant patient. I have anti-rejection drugs I have to take to save my life. If, I don't take it, my kidney will reject and when I don't have insurance, Medicare pays for a lot of it, but it doesn't pay for all of it, so when I lose my insurance, it's $300 a month alone for that," said Green. 

"Our phones just couldn't handle that influx of callers, so we are raising the capacity and we are borrowing staff from other divisions, training staff to help answer telephones and help answer UI inquiries," said Emily Savard, Program and Policy Analyst with the Unemployment Division with the Department of Workforce Development. 

According to the Department of Workforce Development, they increased the number of calls the unemployment insurance division can receive. It is able to have 690 simultaneous calls, up from 450 simultaneously calls. There has also been an increase in staff. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the UI call center had 57 employees. Last week, they added 35 staff members to help with calls. Now, they have pulled, and are currently training, 40 staff members from other DWD divisions to help the call center. DWD would also like to hire 80 more staff workers. 

"The thing is, even if people were hired a week or two earlier, we wouldn't have been able to do deal with the staggering numbers that we have coming in right now. Even if we had 1,000 people hired in the call center, how do you deal with 1.5 million calls? How do you answer all those calls? We're up against numbers that you can only chip at and we're doing our best to chip away at those," said Savard. 

Savard says they will be allowing people to back date claims up to two weeks. 

"I know they're stressed, tired and anxious but they just need to keep trying to call at this point," she said, "And hopefully they will get through soon."

Apply for benefits online here

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