Audit: Workforce agency answered less than 1% of jobless benefits calls early in pandemic — 9/25/20

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development call centers answered just one out of every 200 calls from people seeking jobless benefits during a critical early stretch of the pandemic, according to a new state audit that further quantifies the agency’s struggles to serve unemployed Wisconsinites. From mid-March through June, 93.3% of 41.1 million calls were blocked or prompted busy signals, while callers abandoned an additional 6.2% of calls. That means less than 1% of callers reached a DWD representative about their claims, the Legislative Audit Bureau wrote in a report released Friday. 

The bureau also found that DWD officials in weekly updates reported incomplete data to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, failing to include millions of calls in which people got busy signals. The audit found that 19.6 million calls were either blocked or resulted in busy signals between late April and the end of June. 

The audit comes a week after Gov. Tony Evers ousted Caleb Frostman as DWD secretary, citing an ongoing backlog of unemployment claims that have left jobless residents waiting weeks and even months for aid. 

Responding to the audit, Deputy Secretary Robert Cherry accepted the bureau’s recommendations to improve recordkeeping and reporting of call center data, and highlighted the agency’s efforts to shift employees to call centers and expand their capacity during the pandemic. 

“Never has the state experienced such an incredible surge in claims so quickly,” Cherry wrote, but added that “lessons should have been learned” about call center vulnerabilities years ago. 

A 2014 state audit found that DWD call centers automatically blocked 80% of calls during times of high volume. 

For more on the state’s unemployment insurance crisis — and its impact on Wisconsinites — see our series Lives on Hold. Top Stories

STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVESCOVID-19 testing, like that done with help from Wisconsin National Guard members at the Alliant Energy Center in May, has cost $102 on average, according to a new report by Madison-based M3 Insurance.

Campus shutdowns during pandemic hurl new challenges at Wisconsin college voters — 9/24/20

Today we highlight a story by WPR about how college and university campus shutdowns during the pandemic are creating new obstacles for student voters ahead of the high-stakes presidential election. 

“The disruptions to campus life and the possibility that students could be sent home during the final stretch of the presidential election loom large over efforts to ensure students are ready to vote this fall,” Rich Kremer reports. 

“…Wisconsin’s voter registration rules dictate that a person must live at their current residence for 28 days in order to vote from that address. At most UW System campuses, dorm residents began moving in at the end of August, which means some are just becoming eligible to register this week if they want to change their voting address. Some UW students won’t be able to register their campus addresses until the first week of October.”

Angela Major / WPRUW-Madison student CJ Rockwell, left, is assisted by poll worker Clare Witkowski as he votes Wednesday, Aug 5, 2020, at UW-Madison. Pandemic, campus shutdowns add additional hurdles for Wisconsin’s college voters — WPR 

Aspirus leaders say central Wisconsin at “pivotal” point as COVID hospitalizations spike — WSAW-TV 

Answering your questions on rent and eviction during COVID-19  — WPR 

Wisconsin eviction rates have slowed during the CDC’s moratorium, but landlords are continuing to toss tenants — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Gov. Tony Evers calls on GOP lawmakers to lead by example and comply with state mask order — Wisconsin State Journal 

Why Wisconsin’s state and local coronavirus updates differ day to day — WisContext

College asks for off-campus gatherings to stop — WXOW-TV (La Crosse)

What are we missing? And how are you coping?

Wisconsin sets new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations during pandemic — 9/23/20

Wisconsin on Wednesday set a daily record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to tracking by the Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA). Hospitals reported 509 COVID-19 patients as of 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, eclipsing the state’s previous record of 474 set just one day earlier. The hospitalizations have steadily increased over the past week as the reopening of schools, colleges and universities fuels a surge in coronavirus cases among young adults. The trend influenced Gov. Tony Evers’ move Tuesday to extend his statewide mask order to Nov. 21.

Rapid COVID-19 spread in Wisconsin prompts extended mask order — 9/22/20

 On Tuesday, citing the “near-exponential” growth in COVID-19 cases across the state, Gov. Tony Evers extended his statewide mask order to Nov. 21. In the latest order, Evers notes that infections among young adults have skyrocketed as schools, colleges and universities have reopened. The order cites several sobering statistics:

— 70 outbreak investigations in K-12 schools are underway; 

— 71 out of 72 counties have high disease activity, defined as a combination of disease burden and growth, compared with 61 counties on July 29;

— Eight of the 20 cities with the fastest increase of COVID-19 cases in the United States are in Wisconsin: La Crosse, Whitewater, Green Bay, Beaver Dam, Oshkosh, Platteville, Appleton and Madison. 

Also Tuesday, the United States tallied another grim milestone: More than 200,000 pandemic deaths. Top Stories

AMBER ARNOLD / STATE JOURNALAttendant Alan Whitebird cleans a slot machine at Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison.

Examining Wisconsin’s economy six months into the pandemic — 9/21/20

Today we highlight a data-driven story by the Green Bay Press-Gazette. 

Six months after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Wisconsin businesses and started walloping its economy, reporter Nusaiba Mizan examines the pace of recovery on five fronts: postings on the state’s job portal, manufacturing sector growth, the slowly recovering leisure and hospitality sector, the uncertain real estate market and the state’s persistent but shrinking backlog of unemployment claims. 

Of course, the pandemic is far from over. Daily coronavirus case counts in Wisconsin are surging, particularly where college and university students are returning to campus. 

The Department of Health Services on Monday reported 1,271 news cases, adding to the state’s total of 102,498 during the pandemic. DHS labels 86,822 of those cases (85%) as “recovered.”  

DHS reported 1,244 total COVID-19 deaths as of Monday. Top Stories

Angela Major / WPRThe Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s headquarters in Madison, as shown in this Sept. 2, 2020 file photo.

Gov. Tony Evers ousts DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman, citing jobless claim backlog — 9/18/20

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Friday announced the ouster of Caleb Frostman, the workforce development secretary, citing his department’s delays in processing unemployment insurance claims. The Department of Workforce Development’s struggles leave jobless Wisconsinites waiting weeks or even months for income during the pandemic-induced recession. Evers said he asked for and received Frostman’s resignation, which is effective immediately. Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Amy Pechacek will lead the  DWD’s transition until a new secretary is appointed, Evers’ office said in a news release. “People across our state are struggling to make ends meet, and it is unacceptable that Wisconsinites continue to wait for the support they need during these challenging times,” Evers, a Democrat, said in a statement. “It is clear that our unemployment system has faced historic levels of claims these past few months, hindered in part by antiquated technology we inherited, and processes designed by Republicans to make it harder for folks to get these benefits.”

The DWD has received more than 6.5 million unemployment insurance claims since mid-March, and more than 713,500 claims (10.9%) have yet to be processed, according to data released Monday.

The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting some Wisconsin teachers to quit or retire early — 9/17/20

Today we highlight a story by WPR about Wisconsin teachers who are quitting or retiring early because of the pandemic. “As many Wisconsin school districts are bringing at least some of their students back into classrooms, teachers have pushed back, citing concerns about their health and the health of their families, Madeline Fox reports. “For some, COVID-19 was enough to push them out of the profession entirely.”

The story cites an NBC 15 report that teacher retirements during the first part of 2020 increased compared to last year. 

Top Stories

Photo courtesy of Janelle LaufenbergJanelle Laufenberg’s empty Spanish classroom at her La Crosse school. Laufenberg, who was just barely eligible for retirement, decided not to come back this year over concerns about COVID-19. “I really didn’t feel comfortable going back’: Some Wisconsin teachers quit, or retire early, due to COVID-19 concerns — WPR 

Coronavirus in Wisconsin: New cases reach all-time high as state reports more than 2,000 positive tests — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

PSC extends utility shutoff ban through April; 10,000 could lose water service this fall — Wisconsin State Journal 

Bay Port teacher dies from COVID-19 complications, Howard-Suamico School District says — Green Bay Press-Gazette

‘We are part of the storm’: virtual schooling takes a toll on children and families — WPR 

COVID hospitalizations have spiked in the Fox Valley.

Investigation: How the CDC failed to help local public health officials confront COVID-19 — 9/16/20

Today we highlight a USA Today investigation revealing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s failure to guide local public health officials in their fight against coronavirus, which has been detected in more than 6.5 million Americans and killed more than 195,000. “As the virus raced across America, state and local authorities sought help from the CDC, the $7 billion federal agency established to lead the nation through a pandemic like this. Instead of answers, many received slow, confusing and conflicting information — or no response at all,” report Brett Murphy and Letitia Stein. “… Interviews and records provide the most extensive look yet at how the CDC, paralyzed by bureaucracy, failed to consistently perform its most basic job: giving local public health authorities the guidance needed to save American lives during a pandemic.”

Top Stories

Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal SentinelCecilia Ball of Stillwater, Minnesota, packs her laundry and bags as her mother picks her up to return home from Schroeder Hall at Marquette.

Report: Big Ten to play pandemic-era football this fall — 9/15/20

The Big Ten conference plans to kickoff a pandemic-era football season this fall, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. 

“Sources told the Journal Sentinel on Tuesday that a proposal has been approved for the league to play its 2020 season this fall. The starting date is unclear, but the latest proposal submitted to the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors featured an Oct. 17 kickoff,” Jeff Potrykus reports. “Each team is to play eight games in a nine-week window, with the league title game tentatively set for Dec. 19.” 

The news comes as students are returning to Midwest campuses and increasingly spreading the coronavirus.

Survey: Most Wisconsin school districts offering hybrid or fully in-person classes — 9/14/20

Most Wisconsin school districts plan to offer some form of in-person classes during the pandemic, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Analyzing responses to a Department of Public Instruction survey, reporter Logan Wroge found that about half of the state’s students were preparing to return to school buildings for at least parts of their schooling this year. “A Wisconsin State Journal review found in rural parts of the state the decision was driven in part by a lack of reliable broadband internet access for students and teachers; districts representing about a third of students, including most large urban districts, started entirely online; and some schools’ plans have already been set back by positive cases of COVID-19,” Wroge reported. Top Stories

John Hart, State JournalUW-Madison students prepared to board a bus before spring break in March 2020, just as the pandemic took full force. Majority of surveyed Wisconsin districts offering in-person school — Wisconsin State Journal 

UW Madison: Spring break canceled and 300 students are being investigated for violating COVID-19 policies — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

With a spike in Dane County COVID-19, what’s next for businesses looking to reopen?

Wisconsin Supreme Court lets Dane County kids return to private schools — 9/11/20

Many of Dane County’s private and parochial students will return to school buildings on Monday after the conservative-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked a county emergency order that barred in-person classes for grades 3-12 during the pandemic, the Cap Times reports. The court issued its 4-3 order along familiar ideological lines. 

“While the sides make their arguments on the merits of the order over the next 60 days, the court determined that continuing to bar in-person school would do ‘irreparable harm’ and indicated in the opinion a likelihood that the challengers will win the final decision, as well,” Scott Girard reports. Top Stories

Ruthie HaugeStudents in grades 3-12 across Dane County began the school year virtually under a Public Health order barring in-person school for those grades until certain metrics were met. The state Supreme Court temporarily blocked that order Thursday, allowing students at some schools to return to in-person learning. Some private schools opening for in-person instruction Monday after state court order — Cap Times 

As far as the economy goes, we might want to start spelling ‘pandemic’ with a ‘K’ — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Wisconsin Catholic dioceses to lift dispensation that allowed people to skip Sunday Mass due to COVID-19 — Green Bay Press Gazette 

‘I just want to play’: $19 billion youth sports industry powers ahead through the pandemic largely unregulated — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Coronavirus pandemic could cause voting confusion for college students — WISN

‘I can show you better than I can tell you’: Meet the man behind ‘Milwaukee in Pain’ — Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

‘Frustrated and overwhelmed’: Quarantined UW-Madison students weigh being ‘stuck,’ going home — Wisconsin State Journal 

What are we missing?

UW-Madison goes completely virtual as COVID-19 cases surge — 9/10/20

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is pivoting to completely online classes for at least two weeks in an effort to slow a campus COVID-19 outbreak that soared past 1,000 cases just days after students returned for the fall semester. 

“The announcement on Wednesday came as little surprise to the campus community, many of whom expected the university to pivot to all-online in the face of uncontrolled virus spread and criticized administrators for their ‘Smart Restart’ reopening plan throughout the summer,” Kelly Meyerhofer reports for the Wisconsin State Journal. “The order came on the fifth day of classes, on the heels of a long holiday weekend and after each of the last two days saw a positivity rate of 20% or greater among students. The city-county public health department said there are at least 46 separate outbreaks currently tied to UW-Madison.” 

Chancellor Rebecca Blank on Wednesday announced a host of additional measures to slow the virus, including directing students in Sellery and Witte Residence Halls to immediately quarantine in place for two weeks. 

Top Stories

Waisman BiomanufacturingWaisman Biomanufacturing staff member Rachel Mosher adjusts the controls on a production bioreactor like the one in which antibodies for a drug developed to treat COVID-19 will be produced. UW-Madison moves to all-online classes amid growing COVID-19 case count — Wisconsin State Journal 

‘It’s probably too late.’ Head of UW-Whitewater gives prognosis for fall term amid virus — Janesville Gazette 

Who is left out of Trump’s $300 unemployment insurance boost? — WPR 

Trump acknowledges he intentionally downplayed deadly coronavirus, says effort was to reduce panic — The Washington Post

UW-Madison facility starts manufacturing COVID-19 treatment drug — Wisconsin State Journal 

Dodge Correctional Institution nears 90 active coronavirus cases; county reports sixth death — Fond du Lac Reporter 

Eighteen Waukesha School District area students currently have COVID-19, according to the health department — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

What are we missing?