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'I would like to reach out to her': During I-Team Zoom call, people with unemployment struggles help each other

Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 23:27:26-04

For one year, TMJ4 News' I-Team has listened to the people of Wisconsin struggling as they navigate the Department of Workforce Development's broken unemployment system.

After a year of waiting for answers from the state, the people our cameras captured in a Feb. 19 Zoom call are now turning to each other for help.

On Feb. 19, 2021, the I-Team's Kristin Byrne, producer Marty Hobe, and photographer, Tamott Wolverton held a group Zoom interviewing Wisconsinites willing to discuss their unemployment journey one year into the pandemic.

"I called and talked to a PUA agent back in December and I said, 'Explain to me why you can't help us,'" she told the I-Team during a group Zoom on Feb. 19.

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Toni Matis is one of the 16,614 people still waiting for their benefits. They were all initially denied benefits, and are now appealing their cases to Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development (DWD).

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"You can't imagine what we're going through. No one can imagine what we're going through," said Matis.

Matis of West Bend became unemployed in March 2020 and filed for unemployment. She receives Social Security Disability Insurance. She was disqualified for regular unemployment (Unemployment Insurance or UI) and was told to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance of PUA.

In July of 2020, it was determined Wisconsin residents enrolled in disability benefits (SSDI) and who lost work because of the pandemic, can now receive those payments.

"This is the most devastating thing I have gone through in my entire life," Matis said.

Wisconsinites continue to struggle with DWD unemployment issues

Since the start of the year, more than 150,000 claims for PUA have gone unpaid.

Matis says her case is still in adjudication. She's had four appeal hearings.

"I'm behind in my rent, I'm behind in my car payment, I can't pay my electric bill," she said.

"We are so sorry that you are dealing with this," the I-Team's Kristin Byrne told Matis.

"Thank you so much for sharing your story with us," the I-Team's Marty Hobe said.

Seconds after Matis shared her struggles, others on the Zoom call asked how they could help her.

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"I would like to reach out to her," said Jillaine Kowske.

"I am bawling over here because it's just so horrible what she's going through," continued Kowske.

Kowske lost her job in March of 2020 when her salon closed because of COVID-19. She waited eight months before she finally received her PUA benefits.

Others on the Zoom call joined in offering their support.

"I just feel like I have to do something," said Rita Grey of Milwaukee.

"I just can't believe that they're treating people in this state this way. I can't. I'm angry," said Donna Martino of Racine.

"You guys are in a tough spot too. Why are you trying to help others when you yourself need the help?" the I-Team's Kristin Byrne asked the group on the Zoom call.

"Her story breaks my heart," responded Kowske.

Since our Zoom, the group has shared emails listing resources for food, rental help, and more. One woman got together with Matis for coffee.

"I just feel the need to help her. I feel the need to team up with her," said Kowske.

The DWD declined to attend the Feb. 19 Zoom meeting.

If you are waiting for your unemployment benefits and need help with food, rent, or more, reach out to IMPACT 2-1-1. To get in contact with them, dial 211 or call 1-866-211-3380. You can also text your ZIP Code to 898-211 or visit impactinc.org.

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