When Fall River-based Robbins Manufacturing laid off David Ficke on March 29, the welder followed in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites during the coronavirus pandemic. He filed an initial unemployment claim, hoping it would help him survive a shutdown of much of the state’s economy.
But when a call to the state’s unemployment help line placed him in a queue of 400 to 500 people, Ficke knew he would wait a long time for a lifeline.
Unable to pay rent, he moved into the “Hotel Chrysler” — his 2006 Town and Country minivan — and drove to a rest stop outside of Albert Lea, Minnesota. He wanted to be near his 3-year-old daughter who was living with his ex-wife.
Ficke’s ex-wife discovered he was living in his van and insisted that he stay with them. That is how he ended up living with his ex-wife, her parents and her new boyfriend.
“It is what it is,” Ficke, 42, said in a video interview over Facebook Messenger. Ficke could not speak over his cell phone; he lost service for lack of payment during his nearly three-month wait for jobless benefits.
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) has paid about 2.5 million of more than 3.4 million weekly unemployment claims it received between March 15 and June 20. The agency has denied 409,000 claims and has yet to process 509,000 others, the latter of which represents about 151,000 people.
DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman said in a June 17 interview that his agency was “very, very close” to resolving outstanding claims from March, the earliest days of the pandemic.
Frostman blames the pace on an underfunded and outdated computer system and initial short staffing for the onslaught of claims. Republican lawmakers accuse Frostman and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers for lacking urgency — waiting too long to expand call center hours and shift resources.
Not up for debate: that Wisconsin has failed thousands of its jobless residents who are missing bill payments, rack up new credit card debt and face homelessness.
The state’s tangled safety net has failed in many ways to catch its residents, interviews with 16 laid-off workers show. Their stories highlight the difficulties of navigating the system even without a pandemic.
The problem is part of a national trend, according to experts and media reports.
In Florida, which has received 2.3 million “unique” jobless applications, one applicant reported calling an assistance line as many as 400 times without getting through. Kentucky’s applicants have waited outside of state offices for hours to resolve claims issues. Washington state called in the National Guard to address its claims backlog.
The pandemic struck after a years-long push in Wisconsin and other states to make accessing jobless benefits harder.
Just 32% of unemployed Wisconsin workers accessed benefits in 2016, down from 50% in 2007, according to a 2017 study by the nonprofit National Employment Law Project (NELP). Nationally, the rate of covered unemployed workers fell from 36% to 27% over the same period.
“States have programmed their computer systems to pause applications at every decision point, which can generate multiple eligibility determinations and denials,” Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with NELP, testified this month to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.
“As we have seen, that is going to slow down benefits getting to the public when there is a crisis.”
‘Not sure’ leads to long wait
Ficke’s wait for help concerns how he lost a previous welding job at Karavan Trailers in Fox Lake in 2018. Wisconsin requires unemployment insurance applicants to have worked within the past 18 months and earned enough wages. Applicants must detail that job history.
Ficke is not sure whether Karavan fired or laid him off, but his exit came as the company cut more than 50 employees at once, he recalled.
Asked on his unemployment insurance application to explain why he left, Ficke checked a box signaling he was unsure. That sent his application into an abyss of claims needing adjudication — and it required reaching an elusive DWD staffer over the phone.
“I understand waiting four or five weeks. I get it, I do,” Ficke said. “But when you’re out eight, nine, 10, 11 weeks, you have to be able to do something for the people.”
Problems not new
Ficke is among many who complain of getting kicked off overwhelmed DWD phone lines. The issue is not new.
A 2014 state audit found that DWD call centers automatically blocked 80% of calls during busy times.
The audit came as Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature focused on limiting access to unemployment insurance.
Beginning in 2011, the Legislature under then-Gov. Scott Walker enacted a series of laws that: created a one-week waiting period for benefits (temporarily waived during the pandemic), increased work search requirements for recipients, disqualified people on federal disability from accessing unemployment compensation and increased criminal penalties for making false statements or representations on applications.
Additionally, Walker signed a law just before Evers took office that restricts the governor’s ability to waive requirements for state-federal benefits programs including unemployment insurance. And Wisconsin’s $370 a week maximum benefit is among the most miserly in the United States, ranking 40th among the states and the District of Columbia.
Unemployment applicants as of June 23 spent an average of 19 days waiting for their claims to be paid, according to DWD. But people in Ficke’s shoes are waiting much longer as the agency investigates and adjudicates issues its system flags as problematic.
The agency received 439,000-plus unemployment insurance calls the week of June 20 alone.
All told, Frostman said the agency will be adding about 1,300 new staffers, including hundreds from private vendors, to handle the surge of claims and calls, up from 504 total unemployment insurance staff in March. But 20,000-plus people continue to file initial claims every week.
Chenon Times-Rainwater, a 41-year-old life coach and small business owner in West Bend, waited more than two months before her claim was finally resolved June 26. In that time, Times-Rainwater placed her 16-year-old daughter with special needs in a group home when her family could no longer pay for caregivers to come to their house.
Times-Rainwater helps organize Wisconsin Unemployment Support Group, a Facebook gathering to trade tips and moral support for folks battling DWD bureaucracy. The group has swelled to about 4,000 members during the pandemic. In her leadership role, Times-Rainwater said she has helped relocate 14 families that have lost homes after losing jobs and lacking state aid.
Her group wants Evers to fire Frostman and Mark Reihl, DWD’s unemployment insurance administrator.
“Sixteen weeks people have gone without income,” Times-Rainwater said in an interview, “and nobody cares.”
Wisconsin slow to distribute federal aid
Wisconsin is also distributing unemployment benefits under a separate federal program: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), created for people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic but “would not qualify for regular unemployment compensation.”
Wisconsin has struggled to allocate the money to folks who need it. That includes Adriana Patino, 44, of Marshall in Dane County.
The single mother, who asked to be identified by her maiden name, earns a living transcribing and captioning off-line videos such as university lectures and work training — work that began drying up in April.
PUA was designed specifically to reach independent contractors like her. But Patino said DWD took two months to even allow her to apply for PUA, leaving her to fall behind on rent and car payments.
Patino previously worked for a company called CRV Holdings. She left on good terms last year to pivot to freelancing — giving her more time to care for her daughter. DWD doesn’t allow people to apply for PUA until the agency denies them regular benefits.
Patino’s case is not complicated in that regard; leaving a job voluntarily is enough to prompt a Wisconsin claim denial. But that took two months.
While still waiting, Patino learned that her eldest daughter died in Texas, and she had no money to travel to the memorial service, which has since been delayed due to COVID-19. The same day she heard the news, Evers’ office replied to an earlier email seeking help. Patino sent a fiery follow up.
DWD finally denied the regular claim the next day, sending Patino into a new queue waiting on the agency to process their PUA claims.
Money finally showed up in Patino’s bank account on June 22.
“It’s just a testament to how slow the process still is, even when they do try to expedite a request from the governor’s office because of circumstances like mine,” Patino said.
Wisconsin accepted more than 75,000 PUA claims through June 20. Congress created PUA in late March, and the U.S. Department of Labor issued administration guidance to states on April 5. But Wisconsin did not begin accepting claims until April 21, and DWD took another month to issue determinations and payments.
Frostman, the workforce secretary, said his agency needed time to interpret federal guidance. Another obstacle: DWD’s 1970s-era technology, a vulnerability that lawmakers have understood for decades but never bothered to fix.
DWD planned a major overhaul of its computer system more than a decade ago, but Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration pulled the plug in 2007 as the project fell behind schedule and looked poised to exceed its $24 million budget.
The agency’s IT system requires sequential testing and programming, Frostman said, meaning new benefits programs must be added to the system one at a time. That meant DWD could not program PUA rules until it finished handling other changes required by Congress and the Wisconsin Legislature.
Frostman said he understands frustration with his agency, adding that its efforts are “starting to bear fruit” in processing claims more quickly.
Still, he acknowledged, back payments would not fix every hardship.
Ficke, the welder, guessed he has applied to 20 to 25 jobs during the pandemic. And DWD finally paid his claim July 2, ending his long wait for some income. He’s praying that Robbins Manufacturing, a small family-run company, will hire him back.
“The owner knows your name. He knows your kid’s name,” Ficke said. “You’re not just a number. You’re not just another robot to crank out as much as you can.”
This story comes from a partnership of Wisconsin Watch and WPR. Bram Sable-Smith is WPR’s Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of Wisconsin Watch, which collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.