More than one out of three Wisconsinites still waiting for unemployment benefits

NOW: More than one out of three Wisconsinites still waiting for unemployment benefits

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WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- Thursday was a now routine morning for Rhinelander’s Jimmy Ward, who has tried for weeks to receive his unemployment benefits.

Ward received an error message on the state website, and had to take to the overwhelmed phone line.

“Out of 148 calls, I’ve gotten to the automated system six times," Ward said of his morning. "And all six times, it just says all their on hold lines are busy at this time, we’re disconnecting the call.”

He’s not alone. Since the outbreak started, nearly 1.2 million Wisconsinites have filed for unemployment.

The state has paid out nearly 750,000 of those claims, about $290 million. But that means approximately 37 percent of people have filed a claim, and are still waiting on money. The good news, is now people will receive the extra $600 a week through the federal stimulus plan.

The nonprofit Brookings Institution says that’s a problem for most states in the country, who do not have computer systems to keep up.

“Their ancient computers had to be tweaked so they could pay people four-digit weekly benefit amounts,” Brookings economist Gary Burtless said.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development said they are dealing with a problem similar to other U.S. states. One of the biggest technological hurdles is the fact that the system uses an old programming code called COBOL. It was invented in 1959 during the Eisenhower presidency. Several states are struggling to find programmers that still know how it works. 

“We are doing our best, but that is why I think a lot of people are extremely frustrated when certain things aren’t done in the time frame of, well immediately," DWD Unemployment Insurance Policy Analyst Emily Savard said. "Ideally, it would be. But it’s because we do have this huge barrier, I think it’s fair to say, with our computer systems.”

Savard said making any dramatic fast changes to a system that needs to change quickly, could prove disastrous.

“If we were to try to say, program all the changes at once, that say, came down with the CARES Act, there would be the possibility that everything would blow up.”

Brookings says the payoff is big for those that do make it, especially for those with low income.

“They are receiving a higher weekly benefit amount under unemployment compensation than they earned while they were at work,” Burtless said.

Savard said if you have already filed a claim, please be patient. Filing again will not speed up the process of receiving a claim, but it will add to the already overburdened system, and slow down the process for everyone.

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