In public remarks made Wednesday, Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman answered several commonly asked questions regarding the state's unemployment process and backlog. His answers are below:
Why can I never seem to get through to a real person?
DWD: "Our call systems were not built to handle 5.8 million calls in a week, a 20,000% increase over last year's busiest week. The DWD Telecom team, with the help of DOA, spent the last two weeks of March enhancing our telephony systems to minimize the disruption in our ability to serve claimants on the telephone. We increased the call capacity of our Help Center by 200% in 10 days by adding two additional session border controllers (SBCs) and performing load balancing. Ordering processes that normally take one month were reduced to 28 hours. We are now able to accept 160 calls per second and have 690 simultaneous calls."
Why can't you expand call center hours?
DWD: "The reason we have to stop accepting calls at a certain time each night is ... because of our current benefits system. We need everyone out of the claims system in order to issue payments. With a 10:30 p.m. ACH deadline, our team needs adequate time to prepare batch processing for daily payments. And claimant information cannot be added to the system during this batch processing cycle. Once we stop accepting new calls each evening, our staff continue to perform hours of work to clear call queues, process the claims, issue payments ahead of the nightly ACH deadline, and call back claimants. We continue to examine ways to work around our technological limitations to determine how we may be able to extend our hours."
Isn't there some sort of shortcut you can take to get me my money faster?
DWD: " ... our statutes, which require legislative action to change, do not allow it. The Department of Labor has consistently enforced a requirement that UI benefits only be paid when due and not to pay benefits until all issues that affect an individual's entitlement to UI are adjudicated after giving both the claimant and the employer the opportunity to be heard during the adjudication process.
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Why was Wisconsin so slow to roll out money from the federal government?
DWD: "First, it is difficult to find programmers still in the workforce who have a working knowledge of COBOL. DWD currently has 16 COBOL programmers to assist the agency implement new programs on our antiquated base benefits system. Second, the most prominent constraint of COBOL and what has most affected claimants is that its programming and testing can only be performed in a linear and sequential manner. Thus, testing and onboarding of new programs cannot be performed simultaneously, affecting the timing of new state and federal programs. So far, we have deployed, in order of completion, the waiting week payments, FPUC, and PUA. And we are beginning programming for PEUC. In the coming weeks and months, we must complete programming for the deployment of PEUC, additional PUA requirements, work-share changes, extended benefits, and recharging provisions, while also addressing fraud situations, critical production changes, and bugs as they are discovered."
Why can't you quickly hire more people?
DWD: "I transferred a large number DWD employees into UI in late March and welcomed temporary reassignments from other state agencies. We have now transferred approximately 150 non-UI DWD employees into UI, representing 17% of our non-UI staff. We continue to coordinate with DOA for additional interagency reassignments. To date, we have started 40 and are hopeful to receive more. In addition to the initial internal transfers, the Department immediately began standing up an HR infrastructure to complete more than 300 external hires in a matter of a few short months. To date, our collective HR team has conducted nearly 1,800 interviews to fill our more than 300 openings. We are grateful that our efforts have resulted in hiring of 190 new employees and we will continue our efforts to reach 300 in the coming weeks. Understanding the need would be greater than external hires and government transfers could meet, we began in early April soliciting bids for external vendors to assist with claims processing, customer service, and adjudication. After a thorough vetting process, our first contract was signed on May 7 with Alorica, a call center vendor, who will have 500 staff on the phones by the end of June. As of today (May 27), that vendor has started 100 staff on the phones and is currently training 190 more. Alorica staff began taking calls on Wednesday May 20, which has led to improvements for both claimants and employers and expanded capacity for existing DWD staff to handle more challenging calls and claims. In addition to the 500-person call center, we have also signed contracts with a vendor who will provide 200 adjudicators and 100 claims processors, as well as a call center to specifically help with PUA claims with 40 personnel.
Due to the amount of personally identifiable information UI staff handle, those hires must pass a rigorous background screening, including for some positions, a federal fingerprinting background check.
All told, between external hires, internal transfers, intergovernmental transfers, and the onboarding of new external vendors, UI has hired, contracted, and/or transferred approximately 650 new staff and contractors as part of our 1,300-person hiring effort
Unemployment by the numbers:
- Pre-COVID: 45,000 claims a week
- Post-COVID: 300,000 claims a week
- Pre-COVID unemployment rate: 3.1%
- Post-COVID unemployment rate: 14.1%
- 2.4 million weekly claims filed between March 15 - May 10, 2020
- 311,000 weekly claims between March 15 - May 10, 2019
- 1.7 million claims paid which equals 72%
- 290,000 claims in ALL of 2019
- 600,000 claims since March 15, 2020
Plea from DWD for upgraded computer systems:
"Please, let's invest in our UI systems and infrastructure. One of the most glaring lessons learned coming out of the Great Recession was the desperate need to modernize the unemployment insurance base benefits system, yet Wisconsin is still saddled with one of the most antiquated and inflexible systems in the country. But now, we've all seen the consequences of deferred action. Let's make sure our system is prepared for the next time Wisconsinites need to access the economic lifeline of unemployment insurance.