CBS 58 Investigates: Thousands waiting for unemployment; DWD refuses to do interviews

CBS 58 Investigates: Thousands waiting for unemployment; DWD refuses to do interviews

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- As the pandemic rages on, people out of work are struggle to get unemployment benefits.

CBS 58 Investigates has been reporting on the issue for months. People regularly message us asking for help, and it seems like they don’t get answers until we take their cases right to the Department of Workforce Development ourselves.

Some of the people still waiting filed for unemployment benefits back in April. Multiple people tell CBS 58 they are now facing evictions.

“We’re $900 plus behind in rent,” said John Marquette, who applied in July. “We’re behind in our utilities.”

Amanda Northern is pregnant and unable to pay bills.

“It’s hurtful,” Northern said. “And it’s stressful.”

Another woman, Journey, tells CBS 58 Investigates she applied in April, was denied in July, appealed and finally won that appeal in October. Now she’s waiting to get paid. Journey asked that we not use her last name.

“It’s been horrible,” Journey said. “I’m stressed. My anxiety is bad and I’m facing an eviction myself.”

The Department of Workforce Development says it’s processed 92.7 percent of the unemployment claims filed between March 15 and  Oct. 31. That still leaves 75,900 people waiting for claims to be process. There are another 12,000 who were denied and are appealing the decision.

“We can’t buy cleaning supplies like we need to,” said Dawnell Jessop, who says she applied in July. “We can’t buy toilet paper like we need to. We’re sitting here on the verge of being kicked out of our place in the middle of a pandemic.”

CBS 58 Investigates has been able to get some people answers. After our story last month, two people got approved and paid. Radontay Jones, who applied in June, says he also finally got a call back.

“A day after you guys ran your story, he called me and said that he was -- that it finally came across his desk,” Jones said.

But Jones still has not received any money. Jones says his claim was denied. He filed an appeal and is waiting for a hearing date.

The DWD has repeatedly denied our request for an interview, but CBS 58 Investigates did send them the names of the people who asked us for help.

Here is the response we got: “Thank you for submitting the claimants’ names to review their claim status. We are continuing to work to resolve all pending claims as soon as possible. Our constituent services team that looks into referred cases will be reviewing inquiries from the press to determine the status of the claims, address any issues, and get the claims resolved."

People tell CBS 58 Investigates it’s frustrating some cases only seem to get resolved when a reporter gets involved.

“I’m on a string of prayer,” Journey said. “That’s all I have is prayer.”

Multiple people told CBS 58 Investigates another frustrating part of this is many call center representatives cannot provide answers. Two people told us that they were told to keep calling back until they got an experienced worker who could answer questions.

Since the DWD wouldn’t do an interview, CBS 58 Investigates emailed questions. They responded Tuesday afternoon. We asked what changes are actually in place to help with the backlog, aside from additional staff. A spokesman told me “we continue to offer more training for staff.” He also listed several things they are “looking to implement” but it doesn’t sound like they are in place yet.

We continue to ask for DWD officials to do an interview.

Below are our questions and the answers provided by Ben Judd, communications director for The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

CBS 58 Investigates: "Do the unprocessed claims include people who are appealing their decisions? If not, how many appeals are pending?"

Judd: "No. There are about 12,000 appeals pending. (Please note that our current rates of reversals are in line with last year's numbers.)"

CBS 58 Investigates: "When does DWD expect to be caught up with the backlog?"

Judd: "As soon as possible."

CBS 58 Investigates: "What changes, aside from additional staffing, have been made to ensure there are not future backlogs?"

Judd: "Along with adding staff, we continue to offer more training to existing staff so that more are able to address the complex claims that remain in the queue. We also continue to improve our processes. For instance, we are working to improve our application so that individuals do not make errors on the front-end that unnecessarily hold their benefits. We are also looking to implement some of the system changes that we were planning to start ahead of the crisis, such as enabling our staff to contact claimants and employers electronically, which will significantly reduce the need for scheduled phone calls. We are also looking to be able to allow documents to be submitted online instead of by fax. More long-term, IT modernization was included in the DWD budget request and the Department continues to work with the Governor on how to fund a full modernization of our IT systems so that it does not take so long to deploy new programs, which can delay benefits from getting in the hands of claimants.

DWD's partnership with Google Cloud will provide expedited review of UI and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims to assist in processing claim payment determinations. Google Cloud's service uses predictive analytics based on historical data to shorten adjudication decision-making, which will allow DWD to release payments to eligible claimants faster. Additional key features of Google Cloud's service include descriptive data analytics through segmentation, categorization, and clustering based on claim attributes."

CBS 58 Investigates: "The constituent services team is looking into cases the press inquiries about, some people are frustrated it takes a reporter or a legislator to get answers, what is DWD’s response?"

Judd: "Our staff continues to work through claims as quickly as possible and in the order received. Some cases certainly are more complicated, which require specialists. We understand that individuals may wish to contact their legislator or a reporter about their situation. As a courtesy to the legislative branch and our honorable fourth branch, we do try to provide as much information as possible; however, it's important to note that the same staff who are helping when we get contacted from a legislator or reporter are the same people working the claims through the normal process."

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