MILWAUKEE — After a rough childhood, Abigale Johnsen felt compelled to get into a career that helps those kids who struggle.
“I want to be that light and that voice for them,” Johnsen said.
After graduating from UW-Milwaukee with a degree in social work, Johnsen was eager to get started working with kids who needed help as much as she did at their age.
“Social work isn’t something you choose,” Johnsen said. “It’s something you’re chosen for. I strongly believe that. I just felt it was my calling to go into that program.”
But now, two years later, she’s still not licensed. A pregnancy and a failed license test put things on pause, but the last seven months brought about an unexpected delay.
“I could have had a job if I would have had my license by now,” Johnsen said. “It’s getting frustrating.”
The backlog at the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) has left Johnsen in limbo. After her failed test, she tried to reapply.
That was in October of 2021 and she’s still waiting. Calls and emails provided only canned responses and voicemails. She sent in paperwork and a check for fees that was never processed.
“They’re pretty much putting a damper on my plans to get licensed at this point,” Johnsen said.
“It’s the worst crisis I’ve ever seen in terms of application processing,” Marc Herstand said.
Herstand, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, says he is fielding more complaint calls than he ever has before in his 29 years in the field. While he’s focused on those aspiring social workers, he fears the ripple effects from this problem will have bigger impacts.
“Clinics have had an increase in demand for services,” Herstand said. “They’ve had to put people on waiting lists, because they can’t get people licensed quickly enough.”
Johnsen is among the many social workers who have hit a standstill when applying for a professional license with DSPS. The organization processes professional licenses for over 240 occupations in the state.
“Tattoo artists, nurses, CPA's, real estate, barbers, cosemtologists, doctors, dentists, I could go on,” Secretary Dawn Crim with DSPS said.
Crim cites an antiquated system as one of the issues for the backlog. The last two years have been the busiest for the department on record. It processed some 122,000 initial applications. What makes that more impressive is how they’re processed.
“You're looking at a workforce that has high volume but it's touching high volume,” Crim said. "Our process, unfortunately, is a manual one and it has been. We manually process what's needed, and they're all complex because they're all a little different."
Mail and faxes are as advanced as DSPS gets in the technology department. Starting Monday, May 16, new technology improvements are expected to get underway, allowing for applicants to file materials electronically online. However, Crim says this won’t make them whole.
Compared to nearly 10 years ago when the department was established, DSPS is processing more than double the applications they did then; 122,000 in the last two years compared to 57,000 in 2013-2015. However, in that same time frame, they’ve lost staffing. They’re operating with roughly 127 fewer full-time positions, processing double the amount of applications.
“When I’ve asked for those permanent positions, we make enough money to get those, but they have not been allocated,” Crim said.
“We gave them additional staffing,” Rep. Shae Sortwell said. “More than DSPS has had in a very long time.”
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Sortwell, Chair of the Regulatory License Reform Committee, the legislature approved four of the 33 full-time employees Gov. Tony Evers requested for DSPS in the last two budget cycles.
DSPS operates differently than most other governmental agencies. Taxpayers are not on the hook for one penny of its operating budget. DSPS makes millions of dollars annually in application fees. That money is used to run the department, while extra money is put into the State’s General Fund.
That extra money totals $48,383,400 according to the State’s budgets since 2012.
“I’m just saying, make us whole so we can provide the service people are demanding,” Crim said. “With that, we can do that.”
“We knew this was a problem a year ago,” Sortwell said.
According to Sortwell, there are constituents who have waited upwards of a year to get a license fully processed. He has questions about the operations of DSPS during the pandemic, including why some 70 percent of its employees have been working from home, despite the fact they have still processed more applications than ever before.
“While working virtually can theoretically work, I don’t see how you could possibly do that if you have to work with a hard-copy,” Sortwell said. “I give them a little bit of credit for this, but what they’ve been doing is processing the applications that they can process more quickly. They’ve been sitting on the ones that take longer and so that’s why the backlog is growing and growing and growing.”
His committee created an investigative committee to look into operations at DSPS, which was announced after the legislative session was completed and about a year since he says they were aware this was a serious problem.
“We set aside resources for them a year ago,” Sortwell said. “What we found, is they just sat on their hands for a year before they finally decided, 'hey, maybe we should upgrade the system.' We gave them additional staffing, more than they have had in DSPS for a very long time.”
Sortwell says the legislature set aside $5 million for the technology upgrades and staffing help. DSPS has not applied to receive any of that funding yet.
The department tells the I-Team that’s because it would have taken too long to receive the funds, so it wouldn’t have helped fix the problems they’re facing quickly enough. It’s why Gov. Evers directed some $10 million in Federal ARPA funds to upgrade DSPS’ technology and assist in staffing. However, this is a one-time influx of cash so it could help ease the backlog, but Crim says they need a long-term solution.
“Until I’m properly resourced or have the staffing that can provide the licensure in the manner it needs to be provided, it can be challenging,” Crim said. “I’m here to say, let’s work together. Let’s figure it out.”
“I asked them, is this enough?” Sortwell said. “Is what the Governor is doing, the $5 million for the upgrades and the additional staff, is that enough? Is this going to fix the problem? Because, if it’s not, I want to know about it. They didn’t have an answer for us.”
But while the politicians figure out what to do with the department, it may be too late for a generation of professionals, like Johnsen.
“All of this I have to go through to make practically nothing,” Johnsen said. “I’m just kind of done.”
According to Herstand, Johnsen's take is not the only one. He's hearing people moving out of state or not moving to Wisconsin to take jobs because of the backlog.
"Some people have left the profession," Herstand said. "You've probably had some people who have not moved to Wisconsin or have delayed moving to Wisconsin because of that. Some people have gotten into greater debt trying to cover this period of time and taken another job. It's delayed their future and the profession."
Sortwell says he is convening a legislative council study committee to debrief the findings of the investigative committee so they can prevent another backlog in the future. He says people should expect he will author bills in the coming session to address the backlogs as well.