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After two months of asking for an interview, DWD Transition Director Amy Pechacek answers the I-Team's questions

Unemployment up slightly in Wisconsin in June
Posted at 6:02 AM, Dec 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-03 07:30:58-05

I-Team: "When will this backlog be cleared?"
Amy Pechacek: "We have really expedited our review process. We are really talking in terms of weeks."
"Our goal is to really not be prolonging any of these claims into next year."
"We're working as quickly as we can to get through these and again we're looking at a matter of weeks, no longer months."

Amy Pechacek said this week, DWD is rolling out its extended benefits program which about ten thousand people are eligible. Pechacek said it will be an additional thirteen weeks of benefits to people who have exhausted their twenty-six weeks of regular unemployment benefits or their thirteen weeks of pandemic emergency unemployment compensation.

I-Team: What have you done differently with this program to avoid delays?
Amy Pechacek: "Well, the program is now up and running. So, the payments will be made in lump sums as soon as the individuals go on and file their claim."

I-Team But with PUA, it was the same way. The program was launched, people could apply. But there were still problems with people applying, people still waiting for money, even if they were approved. So what's different about this program so that people won't be experiencing delays like that?

Amy Pechacek: "So PUA is a manually processed program. This is on our portal application. So if somebody goes on and applies and they are still eligible and they haven't found additional employment in the weeks we are certified for, that payment will be issued."

I-Team: "There are about 70,000 UI recipients and about 6,000 PUA applicants still waiting for their benefits. We interviewed a lot of them. Some are extremely angry. Some are losing their apartments and homes. Some are trying to put food on the table and can't even do that. What do you have to say to those people?"

Amy Pechacek: "Just to provide a little bit of context for what this year has meant for unemployment, I just wanted to give you a couple of facts. Through all of 2019, the unemployment division at DWD received a total of 287,072 claims. This year in 2020 from March through November the UI division has received 8.2 million claims. To say that this would be an unprecedented increase doesn't really being to describe what has happened in the unemployment division and so we to date have processed approximately 94 percent of those claims but I certainly understand that the 6 percent that remains represents people represents hardships and I feel absolutely terrible about these ongoing delays which is why we entered into our partnership with Google to expedite the processing of the backlog and also to put in place some systematic technology advances and upgrades that we hope will prevent this is from ever happening again."

I-Team: The person before you got fired. What are you doing differently?

Amy Pechacek: "I came in here and really did an assessment about where we can gain some efficiencies and problem solve so I came in and I brought in additional contractors. I brought in and created new positions to bring in some more employees. I also mandated some overtime for agency staff so that we can have our most adjudicators working through the claims and then I did some listening sessions where I talked to all of the UI employees about what is working, what isn't working, what do we need to do? They are my experts on unemployment and how can we best solve to is the problem? I also listened to the public in several listening sessions that the unemployment advisory committee held and, at that point, it became very clear to me that we weren't going to solve this problem by people power alone and that's when we started hearing about what Google was doing in other states and the work they were able to help expedite for various other states in their unemployment and that's when we kind of partnered with them to really use technology and analytics to help get through this."

I-Team: In your opinion, what caused the backlog?
"The backlog was caused by the pandemic. I think I told you the numbers. It's a significant increase going from 287,000 claims to 8.2 million is something that I don't think anybody predicted."

I-Team: Would you say that you've been successful as a transition director?

"To date, I feel like we made great process. There's still more work to be done. And one of the things that I wanted to talk to you and your viewers about is some of the additional phase two work that we partnered with Google so not only are we trying to get through this backlog and we're getting through it very quickly, we also want to make a more user-friendly system for the people of Wisconsin. We inherited a 50-year-old mainframe of which we're trying to adjust and adjudicate millions of claims on that doesn't have a lot of technology efficiencies. Right now if an individual needs to documentation to our UI team they have to either mail it or fax it so one of the things that Google is going to help us with is a front end document load portal that really can just bring us to the modern time and make this a little bit easier for folks who are already going through a hard time and just want to be able to file their benefits. They're also doing some back-end automation. We've got a lot of manual processors that come with a really old system that take a lot of time so with some of these automations we hope to gain workflow efficiencies that will help us continue to move through claims quickly. And also communication. Right now if a claimant needs to ask a question or wants to know the status of their claim or has to provide information to a claims adjudicator they need to schedule a phone call which is not convenient. So, Google is going to allow us to have electronic communication either through encrypted email or through a messaging portal. And all of that is really going to help us stay on top of claims going forward. There's one last thing I did also want to mention which is we are in the process of re-writing the Unemployment Insurance application. We want it to be in plain language and easy to understand. Right now, the application is lengthy, it's got some jargon, some legalese in it. It's like one of the root causes of why we have a lot of claims going into hold status, is that people aren't exactly sure how to correctly answer the questions. So by revamping the application to make it easier to understand for the people of Wisconsin is really going to help again keep these claims moving quickly.

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