The Department of Workforce Development has yet to make any formal announcements, but three of four unemployment hearing offices in the state are moving or closing.
As a result, no more in-person hearings are being scheduled in Madison, as there currently is no ability or procedure in place for having unemployment, in-person hearings at GEF-1. Neither can parties in Madison unemployment hearings review their case files prior to their hearings and examine documents available to the administrative law judge but kept from the parties (like adjudicator’s preliminary claimant reports).
Staff have been told that in-person hearings may eventually return to Madison in several months. That seems like wishful thinking, however. There simply is no ability or hearing room space in GEF-1 to run the hundreds if not thousand-plus hearings that normally occur.
In 2018, 16,691 unemployment appeal tribunal decisions were issued. If Madison issued a quarter of these, that is 4,173 appeal tribunal decisions for Madison (a conservative estimate, as Madison is probably responsible for at least two-fifths of all decisions in the state). If only 10% of these decisions are done via in-person hearings (an extremely small number, and one likely to be higher given how job growth in the state has been centered on Dane County), that is 417 hearings for which rooms in GEF-1 will be needed (or around eight hearings a week).
And, this number is just for employee benefit decisions. In 2018, unemployment tax decisions involving employers issued by administrative law judges numbered 223, and at least half of these were probably decided in Madison. So, add at least another 100 cases to the Madison docket that now need to be scheduled at GEF-1.
For comparison, in 2018 there were 219 equal rights decisions by administrative law judges. These cases are almost all heard in either Madison (in GEF-1) or Milwaukee. I understand from the equal rights division that scheduling of hearings at GEF-1 in Madison, where the Madison cases are heard, is tight. So, if less than 219 cases are causing scheduling problems at present at GEF-1, the addition of more than 500 cases to that schedule is simply impossible.
In other words, Madison will only be doing phone hearings for unemployment issues for the foreseeable future. If that should change, expect discrimination hearings to be delayed by months or years (as unemployment hearings need to occur within so many days under federal guidelines and so will have scheduling precedence).
But, the re-location of Madison is only part of the news involving hearing offices in Wisconsin. The even bigger news is that BOTH hearing offices north of Madison — Appleton/Fox Valley and Eau Claire — are being closed permanently. Sometime during the first quarter of 2020, these offices will be shut down. Staff who do not on their own initiative and resources relocate to Madison will be laid off.
The Department has yet to disclose this last piece of news publicly. Understandably, the folks north of Madison are not happy with this news. While phone hearings are common in these offices given the vast territory covered by the offices, many employers and a few claimants took advantage of the opportunity to review case files and attend their hearings in-person even if the other side still testified by phone.
Now, the option to attend their hearings in-person is completely foreclosed to everyone outside of the City of Milwaukee.
And, the reason cited for these drastic changes: declining funds for covering the administrative costs for managing the unemployment system in light of declining claims. Yes, claims have been on the decline for some time. But, the number of hearings has not declined in similar fashion, as the issues for which hearings are needed have increased even as claims have declined.
NOTE: While there were 16,691 unemployment benefit decisions by appeal tribunals in 2018, in 2016 these cases numbered 18,532. In 2014, these cases numbered 21,354. So, the number of decisions have obviously declined. Benefit claims, on the other hand, have plummeted to levels not seen since the 1990s, when the working population in Wisconsin was around a million less than it is now. Back then, Wisconsin still managed to fund more than two hearing offices.
NOTE: While the Department is claiming it is short on funds, as of October 2019, it had $13,122,000 available in its program integrity fund (and after pulling nearly $2.5 million from this fund that month). I know of no restrictions on how program integrity funds can be spent.
Closing of the offices north of Madison and the relocation of the Madison hearing office to GEF-1 for phone-only hearings is a tough pill to swallow for Wisconsinites. Rather than making the unemployment system easier to use, these steps only increase the complexity of the hearing process and make it nearly impossible simply to talk to someone directly about what happened with an unemployment claim.
NOTE: Because phone hearings take considerable planning and are difficult to manage, everyone should review the helpful advice about phone hearings in the Workers’ Guide to Unemployment Law.