MILWAUKEE — While Wisconsin's unemployment system cracked under the pressure of the pandemic one year ago, it also brought to light longstanding barriers to benefits under state laws and policies.
Thousands have waited or are still waiting after dealing with Wisconsin's confusing, complicated and arduous unemployment system. The outdated IT system gets much of the blame according to the Department of Workforce Development.
Wisconsin’s unemployment laws are also filled with ineligibilities, making it difficult for some to access benefits, pandemic or not.
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For one, those who receive Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, are not eligible for unemployment benefits in the state of Wisconsin. The nonprofit news service Wisconsin Watch reported last year only North Carolina had a similar blanket-wide ban, with some states handling it on a case-by-case basis.
Last year, lawmakers allowed them to access federal dollars through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, that was created in the CARES Act.
But Wisconsin was still tasked with issuing those PUA payments, and those who receive SSDI have become some of the thousands tangled in the complicated state system.
Toni Matis of West Bend said she was initially denied PUA benefits because she receives SSDI benefits.
"I have not received a nickel,” she said. “I'm behind on my rent, I'm behind on my car payment I can't pay my electric bill.”
Wisconsin approved PUA benefits in April of 2020, but SSDI recipients weren’t added until later in the year.
Matis has been trying to get benefits since March. She’s won three of four appeals but is still waiting. She says just because she receives SSDI benefits, doesn’t mean she’s not hurting financially while she’s out of work.
“Most of us are working citizens we work for a living as well you know,” she said. “Unfortunately, I'm disabled I didn't ask for that either, but it's it is what it is.”
Gov. Tony Evers proposed in his biannual budget eliminating the SSDI ban, among other barriers to benefits.
Among those changes included repealing drug testing provisions, raising the maximum benefit from $370 to $409 next year, and raise it again the following year.
It would also repeal the law that deems claimants ineligible for benefits due to something called “substantial fault.”
According to the legislation, “With certain exceptions, current law defines ‘substantial fault' to include those acts or omissions of a claimant over which the claimant exercised reasonable control and that violate reasonable requirements of the claimant's employer. The bill repeals this provision on substantial fault.”
Mark Reihl, the head of the unemployment division of the Department of Workforce Development says they are “absolutely” on board with the governor’s proposed changes.
“The department recommended these changes to the governor,” Reihl said. “We are certainly behind those and a lot of what these changes will do is help increase the recipiency rate for unemployed workers in Wisconsin and take down some barriers that may prevent some people right now from receiving benefits.”
Wisconsin Labor Attorney Victor Forberger says these changes will certainly help more people access unemployment benefits, but points out there’s a much larger barrier to overcome.
“I think the more difficult problem that people are having, which really came to light this pandemic, is just how difficult this process is,” Forberger said. “So, you've got these legal barriers, but then having just to navigate the claim filing process now it's now 120 plus questions on a weekly claim certification.”
In Wisconsin, the certifications each claimant must fill out every week currently have 127 questions. Comparatively, New Jersey asks seven questions on its weekly certification. The initial application in Wisconsin is even longer, 170 questions.
Reihl points out not everyone has to answer 100-plus questions, saying for the initial application many only answer about 30. For the weekly certification, he says it's closer to about 20 for some people. The department later clarified no one answers all 127 questions.
However, Reihl does admit the process can come off as confusing to people, especially first-time claimants. The
“With the pandemic, we have a lot of new people who had never filed for unemployment insurance before, and so I can see where people may have been confused, could be confused by some questions and could provide some answers to questions that they didn't mean to provide,” he said.
Forberger believes the length and complexity of these questions led thousands of first-time unemployment claimants to make mistakes unwittingly.
In Sheboygan, a former employee of a rental car service named Susan said she made just one mistake on the 170-question initial application last spring. She’s been fighting ever since to get her benefits.
Susan asked we not share her last name, concerned it might hurt her job search.
“I saw somewhere where it says, you should get the help for the PUA, when you file and all that, to make sure you file correctly,” Susan said. “Well, what I was told was I put a checkmark in the wrong place, so I got denied and now I appealed it.”
Forberger said mistakes led to many of those claims being denied.
"It is as complicated as doing the tax return and, in many ways, it's more so because at least TurboTax is providing you explanations and you can click on help screens, and they can explain things to you,” Forberger said.
The DWD could not exactly tell us how many people were denied benefits last year. They tell us 207,188 people received denials in 2020 because they did not monetarily qualify for regular unemployment insurance benefits, but it’s possible they did qualify later in the year.
They also say 57,726 people were denied PUA benefits, but some may have qualified for regular UI instead.
With thousands denied, many have tried appealing their cases. More than 30,000 cases have been appealed since the pandemic began. More than 9,000 have been overturned in favor of the person who appealed, a rate the department said was typical of a non-pandemic year.
At last check, another 2,000 appeals had been placed on the calendar, and 16,000 more were pending a hearing date. Reihl said he believed the number of pending cases had dropped but did not have data on hand during our interview.
The department announced last year that a partnership with Google would help put the questions in plain language.
“We are trying to clarify the questions, make them more understandable to people so that they are not making those kinds of mistakes,” Reihl said.
Forberger participated in the public comment portion of the department’s plans in January. He called them, “inconsequential,” noting that the number of questions did not change.
Reihl called the plain language revisions a “first step” to revamping the application and weekly certification.
He said the department had to make changes that wouldn’t require writing new code in its antiquated unemployment computer software, which dates back to the 1970s.
Changes would help down the line, but those who have been waiting for nearly a year are struggling to hang on, including Timmia Smith, a Milwaukee mother waiting for an appeal date.
“I had no idea that this will happen that this would take this long this process will be withheld for so long,” Smith said.
“I don't know if they really understand the impact that it's taking, the toll that is taking on the people who aren't able to pay their bills,” she also said.