MILWAUKEE — After Cairee Carrington was furloughed this spring, she filed for unemployment like thousands of other Wisconsin workers.
Cairee is hearing impaired and communicates by reading lips, something that's made navigating the unemployment system extremely difficult.
The I-TEAM and TMJ4 News’ Call 4 Action office spoke with her via Zoom with the help of her mom.
"The biggest barrier has been because it's a call-in system, where you have to call in," said Tanzanique Carrington, Cairee's mom.
"This could have all been settled with an email or even a video chat," Cairee said.
Cairee specifically asked the Department of Workforce Development not to contact her by phone.
"There should be other means to communicate with people like through chat, like a type in chat, or video chat, email, like anything than just the phone," Cairee said.
Despite her request, Cairee said the DWD called her about her case.
"Because she doesn't hear the messages they leave because she can't hear, they then say she's failed to respond and her claim is denied. She appeals. She tells them again she can't hear... They then call her on the phone, they tell her to call them back. She never hears that message, they deny her claim a second time," said Victor Forberger, Cairee's attorney.
Forberger represents Cairee and other people who believe they've been unfairly denied unemployment benefits.
He told TMJ4 News he had to request the department contact him instead of Cairee so he could communicate with the department about her claim.
The case is still being appealed a process that's backed up by the thousands of others who were also denied during the pandemic.
"Had they actually read what I wrote down and found a way to contact me, this all would have been solved," Cairee said.
"It just it's mind-boggling to me how a state now in 2020 can treat people in this kind of second class status," Forberger said.
"We have several blind clients and they're filing their claims with the help of someone else," he also said.
Milwaukee resident Judy Henderson was laid off in March then went back to work but had her hours cut. She's visually impaired and her son comes down from Green Bay on his days off to help her navigate the unemployment system.
"He reads it, then he does the best he can. Then he submits my claim when he has a chance. Then he comes and he says momma you owe all of this money back," Henderson said.
Now, the DWD wants her to repay $2,800 after Henderson said the department incorrectly paid her regular Unemployment Insurance benefits instead of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, or PUA.
She called the department to get answers.
"They say go to your portal and you can find out what's going on. If I do go there, how am I gonna see what's going on?" Henderson said, who lost her sight in her 30s.
Her case is now in the appeals process as well.
TMJ4 News asked the DWD what they offer to help visually and hearing impaired people navigate the system. In an emailed response, a spokesperson wrote:
"When individuals with communication disabilities request auxiliary aids or services or DWD has a record of individuals needing such aids or services, DWD takes appropriate steps to ensure that its communications with those individuals are as effective as its communications with others. DWD may request reasonable advance notice from people requesting aids or services to make appropriate arrangements. Likewise, upon request by qualified individuals with disabilities, DWD provides reasonable accommodations to those individuals as long as the accommodation does not cause undue burden."
Cairee said they did request help, but it didn't come right away.
"I didn't get a letter in the mail until we started talking to an attorney," Cairee said.
After he got involved the DWD told Forberger they would make accommodations for Cairee's appeal hearing as long as it's not a quote "undue burden."
It took the DWD about a month to respond to his requests for accommodations.
Henderson is still waiting for help. She also works at the Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired and said others who are visually impaired are struggling as well.
"I want them to try and solve this problem," Henderson said.
The DWD provided some examples when we asked what types of services they provide:
"DWD offers qualified individuals with disabilities a variety of auxiliary aids or services to ensure effective communication, such as TTYs communications through relay, qualified ASL interpreters (in person or video), telephone (rather than internet) communications, text-to-voice communications, qualified readers, audio recordings, etc. The auxiliary aid or service depends on what will be effective based on the needs of the individual with a vision, hearing, or speech impairment."