Less than 1 percent of calls to DWD were answered between March and June, audit reports

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – Only 0.5 percent of calls by people seeking help from the Department of Workforce Development were answered between March 15 and June 30, according to an audit report by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.

During that time, 41.1 million total calls were made to the DWD call centers and 38.3 million, or 93.3 percent, were blocked or received busy signals. 6.2 percent of calls were abandoned by people before getting a chance to talk to someone at the call centers.

The report puts hard numbers to an issue that was faced by thousands of Wisconsinites who sought unemployment benefits due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and brought sharp criticism of the Evers administration that eventually led to the resignation of Caleb Frostman as DWD secretary.

The audit also reported that between March 15 and July 31, DWD’s expenditures for staff at its three call centers totaled $9.3 million and during that time the department increased its call center staff from 90 members to 188.

From April 26 to August 22, the LAB audit reported only 6.6 percent of all initial claims were filed by people calling. Because of that, the report said, “the extent to which individuals were unable to speak with the call centers explains only one reason why some individuals did not receive unemployment benefits in a timely manner.”

There are still many Wisconsinites who have yet to receive unemployment benefits, despite months of waiting.

In recent weeks, Governor Tony Evers has said the issue should have never reached this level and that the administration is working on ensuring the issue does not continue into 2021.

During his time as DWD secretary, Caleb Frostman said the issues primarily had to do with an outdated system from the 1970s and the need to train individuals to boost staffing.

Republicans in the Legislature sharply criticized the administration for the issue.

The report was reported to the Joint Audit Committee led by Sen. Rober Cowles (R – Green Bay) and Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R – Salem Lakes). “The spike in calls and initial claims that preceded the Governor’s shutdown was a clear forecast of the tsunami of calls and claims that DWD should have absolutely been able to expect when the stay-at-home order was issued,” Kerkman said in a release. “This was an unprecedented event, granted, but the anguish and unanswered questions of hundreds of thousands unemployed Wisconsin workers could have been mitigated had the Department acted quickly to adapt to a known need.”

On Friday, Sept. 18, Governor Evers asked for and received Frostman’s resignation. Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Amy Pechacek has since taken over for the transition period until a new secretary-designee is announced.

CBS 58 reached out to the Evers administration for an interview with Pechacek but received the following reply from an Evers spokesperson.

“Deputy Secretary Pechacek’s focus right now is on addressing the challenges facing the DWD and identifying solutions and changes to ensure we can process claims faster and get the people of Wisconsin the benefits they need.”

You can read the audit report below: 

Friday afternoon, Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Transition Director Amy Pechacek released the following statement in response to the Legislative Audit Bureau's report on Unemployment Insurance Call Centers:

"DWD continues to work to overcome the unique challenges presented throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and is committed to continuous improvement to better serve Wisconsin residents. We appreciate the Legislative Audit Bureau's review and recommendations provided through this audit, which will improve the transparency and oversight of UI operations both during and after this public health emergency.

To date, the Unemployment Insurance (UI) Division has processed over 6 million claims and has paid out over $3.7 billion in unemployment benefits over the past six months. These benefits have helped our neighbors navigate extraordinarily difficult times and have helped stabilize entire communities across the state.

UI received an unprecedented number of calls into its UI help center throughout the spring and early summer, receiving nearly 5.8 million calls in one week. Many Wisconsinites impacted by COVID-19 had never before applied for unemployment insurance so understandably had many questions about the program and the application process, as well as about the new programs and changes passed by the federal and state governments. DWD's antiquated IT system hamstrung DWD's ability to quickly implement new changes and programs, which prompted even more calls and questions into the UI help center.

By significantly increasing its telephone system capacity, help center hours, and staff, UI has been able to markedly improve its customer service to UI claimants and accept nearly all calls into the UI help center since late July."
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