CBS 58 Investigates: DWD estimates months before unemployment backlog cleared

CBS 58 Investigates: DWD estimates months before unemployment backlog cleared

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development will report new initial unemployment filings Thursday, June 11. Over 600,000 applications have been filed with the state since mid-March, and DWD said nearly 100,000 applications are still in limbo. The state said it doesn’t believe its workload will get back to normal until late fall.

Overwhelmed by the number of people applying and calling for help, lawmakers have called for DWD to answer the phones 24 hours a day, but the agency said that wouldn’t help people get their checks any faster.

“Eight weeks is unacceptable, if you think that’s great, we certainly disagree,” said State Senator Steve Nass (R-Whitewater).

Nass ripped into DWD leadership at a hearing in late May, frustrated with the number of people calling for help and getting nothing.

“They’re waiting for the cavalry to arrive and it's slow in coming,” said Nass.

CBS 58 Investigates asked DWD to provide just one week of emails from lawmakers trying to help their constituents file for unemployment.

DWD sent over 2,100 pages of emails. The names were redacted, but people wrote:

“Called 1,035 times since Monday and have not been able to get through.”

“I’m running out of money and food and I have yet to pay rent this month.”

“Call back employees…reassigned staff…unemployment should be working around the clock right now.”

“We need bodies and we need minds to address all steps in the process,” said DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman.

Frostman said he’s transferred 17 percent of his staff into the unemployment division, hired nearly 200 new employees, and contracted hundreds of outside workers. However, those workers won’t be fully trained and working until the end of June.

“Other states have stood up internal and external systems in haste and are seeing very troublesome data breaches which to date we have successfully avoided,” said Frostman.

DWD has a two-headed monster to vanquish. Getting people approved is one problem. The other is the department's 1970’s-era computer system.

"Why do we not have people on the phones? Because I can tell you, there are people who have been waiting for seven weeks who will sit and wait until three in the morning to talk to somebody,” said State Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield).

“People would have to write down information, and there were many errors put into the system because the mainframe was not available to place the information into the system,” said Frostman.

DWD has to stop entering data into its mainframe computer at 6 p.m. each night, because the system starts processing who to pay, how much to pay, and where to send the money. DWD IT Director Neeraj Kulkarni said anyone entering data into the mainframe computer after 6 p.m. messes up that process.

“There is a risk of incorrect payments being distributed,” said Kulkarni.

Kulkarni added there is no workaround.

“Requires the claims entry system to stop,” said Kulkarni.

Frostman told lawmakers he doesn’t expect the Unemployment Division’s workload to get back to normal until August through possibly October. He also said DWD began researching a new computer system in 2019. Frostman said it would cost tens of millions, and the agency began working on a plan to fund the computer upgrade in February.

And then coronavirus hit.

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