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DWD Secretary answers questions on unemployment claims delays

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – Republican lawmakers grilled the head of the Department of Workforce Development during an informational hearing demanding answers for what they called an “unacceptable” amount of delays in processing unemployment claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of May 23, 728,487 claims remain unpaid. More than 2.4M weekly claims have been received by DWD. The state has seen unprecedented demand for unemployment benefits as the rate of unemployment spiked from 3.1% in March to 14.1% in April.

“They’re waiting for the cavalry to arrive and it’s slow in coming,” Sen. Steve Nass (R – Whitewater), who chairs the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform. Nass, one of the most vocal critics of the Evers administration during the pandemic, questioned why Evers and Frostman did not prepare with increases in staffing and operations in February.

“Didn’t anybody think what if we jump to 10 percent? Everybody’s going be shutdown, people are going to be laid off. Nobody said, we’re just going to go merrily along?” Nass said.

But DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman told committee members the agency is making the best of an already bad situation during an unprecedented time.

“Our planning and strategies to work through and around our agency’s constraints of time, enormous volume, antiquated technology and limited personnel reflect this,” Frostman said.

The department has been working to address the delays, according to Frostman, through expanding staffing and hours of operations. He pointed out, however, that even through adding more employees, they still require training that takes time.

On top of that, Frostman and other agency leaders who testified Wednesday said the department’s outdated technology and system have been the largest hurdles in trying to adapt to the unprecedented amount of claims.

While Republicans have criticized the Evers administration’s handling of the claims, Democrats point to GOP inaction as part of the reason for the delays. A 2014 audit of the department raised concerns that the system was outdated and needed revamping, though that was not done.

“We've seen the consequences of deferred actions," Frostman told the committee.

Additionally, several Republican-backed laws enacted since 2010 were meant to prevent fraud, but Democrats and officials said those have created confusion among applicants as well as delays in the process.

“Blaming Republicans for the problems which have taken place which is frankly a bunch of B.S.,” Sen. Chris Kapenga (R – Delafield) said during the hearing.

Frostman told the committee that while systems and policies put in place when Republicans controlled both the Legislature and Governor’s office are not affecting all the delays in processing claims, they still are, “very much a constraint” and have created backlogs.

Frostman said that the agency began paying out claims under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program last week. He said delays for that program (which is an additional $600 for 39 weeks) was due to the department testing the program first to ensure accuracy before proceeding with payments.

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