Thousands still waiting for unemployment benefits

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Tens of thousands of people remain out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many are still struggling to get unemployment benefits.

Charlette Michel lives near Lake Geneva and works as a tour guide in cities like Chicago and Milwaukee.

“It’s been a very fun job and I love it, and I just need that extra income,” Michel said.

But Michel’s job essentially vanished when the pandemic hit. Because she is a gig worker, she applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA is a temporary, federal program for people who don’t qualify for other types of Unemployment Insurance.

Michel applied April 23 and her application still has not been processed.

“It’s frustrating to me but I can’t even imagine how frustrating it is for the people who are paycheck to paycheck and have to feed their families,” Michel said.

The Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Caleb Frostman, says they’ve received just over 90,000 PUA applications since the pandemic started. So far they’ve processed about 50,000 of them.

“We got off to a slow start I think, as we became more familiar with the program and brought a lot more people on board to work on the PUA processing,” Secretary Frostman said. “And as those folks have come on board and been trained, we’ve seen a really strong uptick in weekly processing.”

Secretary Frostman says about 125 people are working on PUA applications, which have to be manually reviewed. They’re completing between 7,000 and 10,000 a week, and hope to be caught up by the end of summer or early fall.

Secretary Frostman says one reason they had a hard time keeping up is an outdated IT System, something they are in the beginning stages up updating.

“We had vendors do demonstrations for us, we were pricing things out,” Secretary Frostman said. “We had meetings internally even as late as February of 2020 to potentially find funding solutions going forward, and COVID hit before we could pull the trigger on modernization.”

Updating the system is a long process. Secretary Frostman says it could take two to five years and cost between $50 and $100 million.

In the meantime, he says now that they increased staff and those people are trained, he hopes they can catch up and keep up with applications.

That’s needed news for Michel, who doesn’t expect to be back to work anytime soon.

“I did get a call within the last month or so, and my next job is March of 2021 so far.”

There are a lot of COVID-19 related circumstances that could qualify you for PUA. Click here to see some special circumstances that could make you eligible.

And click here for more details about applying for PUA.

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