More than 16,000 unemployed workers are stuck in a backlogged appeals process and the Department of Workforce Development appeared to know it would be a problem as early as October.
Last October, the I-Team requested data on people who appealed the DWD's decision to deny them benefits.
Emails obtained in an open records request show Assistant Deputy Secretary Danielle Williams forwarding our request for appeals data to the head of the UI Division, Mark Reihl, writing, "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 I-Team requested basic appeals data from the DWD communications team. Hours after our inquiry, the department had prepared a response to tell us 30,813 people appealed their denials from March to September.
Records show Williams stopped the communication team from answering that question, telling the communication staff we "...submitted this request as an open records request, which is currently in processing."
The I-Team still has not received a response to this request.
In the same response to our request for emails, records show the DWD communication staff notified the governor's office of our request for appeals data. They also did not release information to us.
It also showed DWD staff was required to get approval from the governor's office before they could answer any of the questions we posed them, many of which came directly from unemployed residents that contacted the I-Team.
"If you're going to fix the problem you actually have to fix it," said labor attorney Victor Forberger. "It can't be something that can be massaged through public relations. And to fix it means you actually have to change what you've been doing."
Forberger represents unemployed residents appealing their denials. As of Feb. 8, 16,614 appeals were awaiting a hearing, according to the DWD.
Forberger believes that number is actually higher.
"There were appeals that were filed in November that actually weren't docketed until January," he said.
"Right now it's taking the hearing office six weeks just to schedule," Forberger also said.
The DWD declined to comment on camera about this issue. However, a spokesperson said 25 percent of all unemployment determinations were appealed in 2020. Typically that rate is closer to 10 percent.
Since the start of last year, there have been more than 56,000 appeals filed with the DWD. As of Feb. 8, 2,070 appeals were scheduled on the calendar.
The department has hired 10 administrative law judges to help with the increased caseload. They plan to hire 25 more.
But the delays mean additional waiting for those who might not have seen a dime since the pandemic started nearly a year ago.
Valerie Anderson worked in the foodservice industry when she was furloughed in the spring of last year. She's bounced around from waiting on call centers to delays due to adjudication and has been waiting on an appeal since December.
"It's very unacceptable to me and it feels a little irresponsible," Anderson said. "You, to actually feel like okay I'm getting somewhere and talk to someone and it's just still pushed to the side is kind of like a personal kick in the face."
Angela Torres has waited since March as well. She won an appeal, and she lost another. She's still waiting on the state to figure out what she's owned.
"You can tell somebody, hey you won your appeal, but oh well, you got three-four weeks to really get their money," Torres said. "I've got $4 in my checking account $2 in my savings account."