Wisconsin unemployment problems persist despite tech giant support

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Posted at 5:47 AM, Jan 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-12 23:35:13-05

The state unemployment agency signed a $1.1 million contract with Google Cloud systems last year to help clear a backlog of unpaid claims, but unemployment problems remain steady.

The Department of Workforce Development declared it cleared the backlog of claims created by the pandemic late last year, with the help of Google's Analytics.

They say it helped staff by predicting if a person would be eligible for benefits. However, the contract and the department both specified that a DWD staff member has to make the final eligibility determination.

Despite claims of a cleared backlog, the I-Team continues to hear from people who were denied and stuck in the appeals process, as well as a number of those who were told to pay back a portion or all of their benefits.

Michele Martino of Racine County was told she had to pay the DWD back more than $2,000.

She lost her job and then had a brain aneurysm that hospitalized her for a month.

"All I did on my end was call and press buttons when I filed my weekly claim," she said. "So where did I go wrong?"

Michele Martino was told she had to pay back the DWD more than $2K

The department has even issued a warrant against her, threatening to place a lien on her property if she doesn't pay the money back.

"Why should I be at fault?" Martino said. "You guys made the mistake."

Tyler Lang of Greenfield has been fighting with the DWD since August. Lang says his claim was denied when the department said his employer failed to meet a 48-hour deadline.

"It's a little hypocritical if you ask me, that they held on to a for about four months, but they only give a business to respond in 48 hours," Lang said.

Despite the tight deadline, Lang showed us email screenshots that he said proves the department did get the information on time.

Tyler Lang of Greenfield has been fighting with Greenfield since August

Lang is appealing to show a department judge what happened, but he may have to wait for months.

"I'm not able to process that," Lang said. "I mean it almost makes you want to throw up."

When the department brought Google on, the head of the DWD Amy Pechacek said it would be instrumental in clearing the unemployment backlog.

Previous unemployment coverage:

"Our partnership with Google has provided us with advanced data analytics and eligibility reporting metrics that have really enabled DWD to more quickly and strategically work through the remaining claims," Pechacek said in a Dec. 1 interview.

Wisconsin unemployment problems persist despite tech giant support - gfx

Labor attorney Victor Forberger raised concerns about the partnership, and he says things don't appear to be better.

"I'm just being slammed now with calls from people and emails about just crazy problems that should not ever be happening but are now happening," Forberger said.

One of those concerns is that an overly completed application process led the thousands of people unemployed for the first time to unknowingly make mistakes.

"So if you're predicting analytics based on these wrong answers, yeah, it could very easily have an exponential effect and lead to more claims, more weeks being denied," Forberger said.

More denials mean more appeals, as the backlog of unpaid claims has shifted to the appeals process. Last month Pechacek told state lawmakers that more than 14,000 people were waiting on an appeal. Forberger said it's taking four to six months to get cases on the calendar.

Overpayments like the one Martino was hit with are up as well. The DWD says from April to November, 68,000 people were paid $54 million. That's an increase of 6,000 people and $10 million since the I-Team asked about overpayments late last year.

DWD stats

Gov. Tony Evers named Pechacek Secretary-designee of the department after she made the claim the backlog was cleared. At the time thousands were still in adjudication, a process the department previously considered to be part of the backlog. They also did not take into account Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimants, who were not eligible for regular unemployment insurance.

In November and December, the I-Team submitted open records requests to the department to learn more about how the department is operating with Google's help.

When we asked about the status of those records, a department lawyer only told us, "We are working on your request and will respond as soon as practical and without delay."

The DWD did not make anyone available for an on-camera interview. Instead, they answered some questions via email.

A spokesperson said: "Google analytics are tools used to help analyze, streamline, and reduce the backlog based on the information the Department has available at that point in time. The UI [unemployment insurance] program utilizes safeguards to detect and prevent erroneous payments as much as possible prior to the payment being made."

About the accuracy of the program, they said: "Currently, the Google/SpringML predictive analytics models are demonstrating about 75-80% cumulative accuracy for the predictions, with variances depending on the issue family. Internal DWD staff, who are subject matter experts, then review the predictions to ensure accuracy of the results, and then further assess the data before issuing determinations."

Martino and Lang feel like they fell through the cracks, and the department is trying to simply move on from the unemployment failure.

"It makes you sick," Lang said. "There's a pit in the bottom of your stomach that they're essentially going to delay this thing and hopefully people are just going to be forgotten.

"I'm lost, I don't know what to do next," Martino said.

The I-Team also reached out to Google for a comment. They said in a statement:

"Customers, such as the state of Wisconsin, control their data; we process their data according to their instructions. This means that no data is shared or processed without the customer’s knowledge and consent.

"Think of it like a safe deposit box at a bank; Google Cloud is the bank, and the safe deposit box holds the customer’s data. Google Cloud does not have permission to open the safe deposit box without the customer’s [DWD's] permission."

Forberger also was concerned about the use of Google to predict claims based on analytics. He compared it to a computerized system set up in Michigan about a decade ago, that led to thousands of incorrect fraud charges.

Labor attorney Victor Forberger raises concerns over DWD, Google partnership

When the partnership between the DWD and Google Cloud was announced, the department said in a news release the system would help the department's identity possible fraud, "based on key indicators, allowing DWD to more strategically work through eligible claims."

The department responded to our question about the comparison to the Michigan fraud charges via email, saying: "We are not making determinations of fraud based on the analytics. Potentially fraudulent claims are flagged for review and put through to the fraud unit to process with staff."

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