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'My mental health has completely diminished': One year into COVID-19 pandemic, thousands still fight for benefits

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 17:39:51-04

On Feb. 19, 2021, the I-Team's Kristin Byrne, producer Marty Hobe, and photographer Tamott Wolverton held a group Zoom inviting anyone in Wisconsin willing to discuss their unemployment journey.

Several months earlier, we listened to stories from dozens of Wisconsinites struggling as they navigated the state's system.

One year into the pandemic, 16,614 people are still waiting for their benefits. They were all initially denied benefits, and are now appealing their cases to the state. The DWD estimates 30 percent of denials will be reverse in appeals.

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

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

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Matis became unemployed in March 2020 and filed for unemployment. She receives Social Security Disability Insurance.

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.

She was disqualified for regular unemployment (Unemployment Insurance or UI) and was told to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance of PUA.

Since the start of the year, the DWD estimates 17,233 people are waiting on PUA benefits.

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.

Wisconsinites continue to struggle with DWD unemployment issues

"It's so devastating," she continued.

For one year, the I-Team has told dozens of stories about the Department of Workforce Development's broken unemployment system.

After forwarding people's emails with their case data over to the DWD, the I-Team helped more than 80 people get $383,270 of their benefit money.

While thousands still wait for payment, the DWD reports in about one year, it has distributed $4.84 billion in unemployment benefits to 603,500 people.

"It's not like it hits and we're good to go. It's great that the money hits but there's so much to catch up on," said Kevin Turpel, who received his benefits after about eight months of waiting.

One year into COVID-19 pandemic, thousands still fight for benefits

Turpel said the DWD had listed the wrong employer for his PUA application. After an appeal, he received the unemployment payments on Dec. 29.

"We're still crawling. We're still crawling out of it. I think all of us are," he said.

"It's going to take me years to rebuild to where I was," said Donna Martino of Racine.

Martino says she's been in the travel business since 1985.

"I've always been employed," she said.

Martino applied for PUA on April 21 and received benefits in June.

"I was paid consistently and when it ended in December, they said you know we're going to have this extension, things are going to happen don't worry and then I get on there and see the end of April for payment," Martino said.

Federal programs allowed for extensions of certain benefits. Those benefits were supposed to kick in at the start of 2021. However, the DWD reported its outdated computer system is the reason for these delays. The DWD reports delays for PUA, for example, are expected to last until late March.

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"At any point in this process now that we're a year out, has anyone said, I can't do it. I am going to give up? the I-Team's Kristin Byrne asked the Zoom group.

"Yeah. It's been hard. There have been times when I've wanted to give up, said Timmia Smith.

"Just to be able to stay in a positive mind frame right now is hard," she said on the Zoom chat.

Jillaine Kowske's salon closed down in March of 2020 and never reopened because of COVID-19.

"My whole family lost their jobs. It beat down on me. I had to constantly make arrangements with bills," she told the I-Team.

"I've worked my whole life. I've never been off until this year," she said.

Kowske waited about eight months to receive her benefits. Now she's waiting again for PUA benefits.

"They're antiquated system apparently has to keep being reprogrammed for every single different program I guess," Kowske said.

"It's a pretty bleak outlook for the rest of the year," said Jeffrey Mayer who works in the live events industry.

Mayer says his case is being held up for suspected fraud.

"I noticed that my direct deposit information had been changed in my online portal. So, I reported that to the fraud department and I haven't been paid since," he explained.

The I-Team asked the DWD to attend the February Zoom meeting. A spokesperson declined.

"People should not have to wait this long while their life collapses around them," she said.

"The state of Wisconsin the way they turned their back on us, is unforgivable," Matis said.

If you are waiting for your unemployment benefits and need help with food, rent, or more, reach out to IMPACT 2-1-1. Dial 211 or call 1-866-211-3380. Or text your ZIP Code to 898-211.

Visit impactinc.org for more information.

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