Toni Matis of West Bend has appeared on TMJ4 News before. She has been fighting to get unemployment benefits for nearly a year.
To get by, she rationed her medication. Today, she is on the verge of having her car repossessed. And says she would have lost her housing without the help of a sympathetic landlord.
Her hearing was held one year to the day since she first started interacting with the unemployment system. After a year of fighting, an administrative law judge has ruled in her favor.
That’s not the case for everyone.
One year of waiting:
On March 25, 2020, the state of Wisconsin shut down, as did the rest of the country, to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
That same week, Matis first applied for unemployment benefits.
In 1995 she fell and broke her neck. She received Social Security Disability benefits. But Matis still must work about 25 hours a week to make ends meet.
Toni and hundreds of thousands of people flooded the Department of Workforce Development’s website to apply for unemployment benefits. The system was not ready for the onslaught.
Leaving people waiting. First, by phone. Unemployed Wisconsinites complained they could not get through when they called DWD for answers to their questions.
A Legislative Audit Bureau report from September 2020 showed from March 15, 2020 – June 30, 2020, 38.3 million of the 41.1 million phone calls were either blocked or received a busy signal.
And 6.2 percent of those calls were abandoned by the caller. Meaning just 0.5 percent of calls were answered.
Adding to the wait, the adjudication process. Thousands of applications were flagged and placed into adjudication, where cases needed to be investigated.
This contributed to the massive backlog of unpaid claims last year. At its height, the number of unpaid unemployment claims stood at more than 700,000. In June the department said the backlog affected approximately 151,000 claimants.
To handle the unprecedented number of claims, the DWD signed tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to hire more people to handle the caseload.
According to a DWD spokesperson, on March 14, 2020, the DWD UI Division had 504 total staff members. As of March 31, 2021, there are 1,435 staff members including those added through contracts or moved from other divisions or departments. Five hundred and fifty-six of those employees are adjudicators, tasked with determining a person’s eligibility for benefits.
It also cost then-DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman his job. In September, Gov. Tony Evers asked Frostman to step down. He was replaced by Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Amy Pechacek, who was first named transition director before getting the secretary-designee position.
Shortly after Christmas, the department under Pechacek claimed the backlog was cleared, and the department was looking forward from the unemployment fallout.
But people continued calling and emailing TMJ4 News, and posting on social media, saying they still needed help. We found many of them had similar stories of fighting denials from the department.
A second backlog:
Since the start of the pandemic, thousands were denied benefits, and it is hard to pin down exactly how many.
The DWD says its regular UI denial data is always changing, noting many are denied because they do not monetarily qualify for benefits. In all of 2020, this impacted 207,188 regular unemployment insurance claimants. But DWD says people may qualify later after earning enough wages.
For those who applied for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance created by the CARES Act to offer benefits to those not eligible for regular UI, the DWD says 57,726 claimants were denied. The department notes some of those claimants may have been eligible for regular UI but cannot determine how many.
With so many denied, many who felt it was unfair appealed their case. There are 2,572 hearings scheduled as of April 6, but more than 15,005 are pending.
It was a problem the DWD appeared to know about last summer. Emails show DWD administrators addressing a TMJ4 open records request for appeals and denial data back in October. Assistant Deputy Secretary Danielle Williams emailed the head of the Unemployment Insurance Division Mark Reihl Friday, Oct. 30 saying, "I know we've been discussing this issue for quite a while but just flagging that it's likely becoming a bigger issue publicly."
The department has hired 45 administrative law judges to help with the caseload since the start of the pandemic, and the backlog has dropped in a month’s time, from 16,614 in February to 15,005 in April.
According to the DWD, the average age of an appeal awaiting a hearing is 77 days.
Matis’ hearing was not a simple one. A department lawyer questioned her availability to work based on something an adjudicator reported she told them before an administrative law judge reversed the department's denial.
But according to the DWD, she is one of the lucky ones. Less than a third of appeals were won over the course of 2020.
The department says from March 2020 to January 2021, it heard 30,972 appeals. Just under 30 percent, or 9,193, were found in favor of the person appealing.
Wisconsin labor attorney Victor Forberger says he is won 90 percent of his clients' appeals.
For those going it alone, it can be a frustrating process. Vera Nowak from Greendale lost her first appeal hearing in August. She continued to appeal, starting with the Labor and Industry Review Commission, and now is up to the municipal court level with her appeal. The DWD tells us it does not track cases appealed above its administrative law judges.
Those who have won their appeals tell us it is important to note, the day you win your appeal or receive your benefit money is not the finish line.
Samantha Serchen in Neenah was facing eviction on Jan. 2, even though she won her unemployment appeal in December. But the money was not going to come through until February.
The department says it has to manually input the determination following an appeal before the money can be paid out, which it says can take an additional few weeks.
Serchen is also Forberger’s client, who had to ask the DWD secretary’s office to make an emergency exemption in her case.
For some, when they finally get their money the work of rebuilding begins, and it can be an arduous task.
In a group call with those affected by the unemployment system, TMJ4 learned once the money hits your accounts, it is time to start repaying everyone they owe who helped them get by. And it takes a toll on a person’s mental health, as well as their financial health and credit score.
For those who owned a small business, like Donna Martino who ran a travel service, it can mean completely starting from scratch.
How the State Has Responded:
Shortly after Frostman was asked to resign, Pechacek sought the help of tech giant Google to help clear the backlog of unpaid claims. Around that time the backlog sat at more than 82,000 unique claimants.
While the department announced the backlog was cleared, there were still thousands in the appeals process.
The DWD is working to hire additional administrative law judges to handle the excessive caseload.
Replacing the 1970s era COBOL system remains among the top priorities to fix the broken unemployment system. The department announced in March it is moving forward on plans to pay for it. It estimates it will cost $79 million total.
Gov. Tony Evers has also proposed several changes to state unemployment law that the department says it brought to him.
Including permanently banning the one week waiting period for benefits, eliminating the ban on SSDI recipients, and repealing the “substantial fault” law that can deem a person ineligible for benefits if they were fired for “... acts of omissions of a claimant over which the claimant exercised reasonable control and that violate reasonable requirements of the claimant’s employer,” according to the legislation.
His proposals also include raising the maximum weekly benefit allowed in Wisconsin from $370 to $409 next year and raising it again the following year.
TOMORROW NIGHT: A new look & better functionality is coming for WI's unemployment claims portal. Secure upload for certain documents, message center, easier navigation and more... pic.twitter.com/2VRd0eUIBv— Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (@WIWorkforce) March 29, 2021
The DWD said it is trying to make the process simpler to understand, especially for first-time users. The department announced in March it was upgrading its claimant portal that is easier to use on a smartphone.
It's also is trying to rewrite some of the application and certification in “plain language” though the department notes that is difficult to do without needed extensive changes in its out-of-date system.
The department also says it is moving forward with a cloud-based communications center to allow claimants to access their information by phone 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Problems with Wisconsin’s unemployment system are something the TMJ4 News I-Team has followed for more than a year. We understand it is an issue that continues to impact thousands of people. If you are struggling to get answers and need help, contact the I-Team.