'The system was not built to handle this': People struggle to get unemployment office on the phone

Wisconsin unemployment hit record low in December
Posted at 9:11 PM, Mar 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-30 23:18:55-04

As hundreds of thousands of people apply for unemployment benefits in Wisconsin, officials say the number of calls to the state office is overwhelming the system.

More than 115,000 people applied last week alone, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The office received more than 1.5 million calls during that time frame, a 6,208% increase in call volume.

"At one time, they were averaging 160 calls per second," said Gov. Tony Evers. "The system was not built to handle this."

Rafael Mercado got laid off from his construction job last week and has since spent most of his time on the phone. He applied for unemployment benefits online but was prompted to call the office for the next steps. He says he hasn't been able to get through for several days.

"I think I called seven, eight times today," Mercado said.

Mercado has a wife and two kids, pays $1400 in rent, and worries about other bills he has to pay.

It's a similar story for Larry Nelson, whose restaurant in West Allis closed on March 15.

"And when I did connect to them, I was like 138th in line," Nelson said. "And they told me I would be holding for six and a half hours."

The Department of Workforce Development announced it is increasing its capacity to allow for 690 calls at the same time, up from 450. It's also increased its staff from 57 to 92. It's training 40 staff from other parts of the department to answer calls, and it needs to hire 80 more people.

Emily Savard is a policy analyst with the department's unemployment insurance division. She said the department is urging people to continue to apply online. She said statistics show 98 percent of applicants can complete their forms online, but with such an increase, the other 2 percent is still thousands.

Savard said it's not a good idea to try to call continuously, but maybe wait a few days if you can.

"If they can wait a few days to either file their claim or call in, I can't promise that they will get through right away because the numbers are still staggering, but that would help spread out the calls in our system and allow for more people to through easier," Savard said.

Mercado understands this is no one's fault, but he feels the pressure and hopes to hear from the office soon.

"Just prayer, just having hope that this is going to work out," Mercado said.

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