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.

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.