Claims have sky-rocketed in the past few weeks, and the Department of Workforce Development has been providing daily updates on these numbers:
Before pandemic claims started
Week 11 2020 2019 ratio Sunday 746 948 0.8 Monday 1,237 1,376 0.9 Tuesday 809 811 1.0 Wednesday 674 738 0.9 Thursday 710 711 1.0 Friday 985 786 1.3 Saturday 537 217 2.5 Totals 5,698 5,587 1.0
When pandemic claims started
Week 12 2020 2019 ratio Sunday 1,499 826 1.8 Monday 4,392 1,329 3.3 Tuesday 8,603 818 10.5 Wednesday 14,988 725 20.7 Thursday 16,252 703 23.1 Friday 17,094 789 21.7 Saturday 6,514 26 250.5 Totals 69,342 5,216 13.3
Second week of claims
Week 13 2020 2019 ratio Sunday 10,872 963 11.3 Monday 21,250 1,412 15.0 Tuesday 18,638 918 20.3 Wednesday 19,438 699 27.8 Thursday 19,489 672 29.0 Friday 18,386 748 24.6 Saturday 7,606 228 33.4 Totals 115,679 5,640 20.5
Third week of claims
Week 14 2020 2019 ratio Sunday 12,136 878 13.8 Monday 24,664 1,248 19.8 Tuesday 859 0.0 Wednesday 642 0.0 Thursday 679 0.0 Friday 709 0.0 Saturday 158 0.0 Totals 36,800 5,173 7.1
Claims for week 11 were nearly identical to what was filed last year. Starting with week 12, however, claims started escalating and took off on Wednesday of that week. Nearly 70,000 claims ended up being filed then.
The trend continued into week 13. Nearly 116,000 initial claims were filed that week, over 20x greater than the claims filed for that same week in 2019.
Note: March and April are typically when initial unemployment claims are at their lowest, as many workers are returning to jobs after seasonal layoffs because of winter.
As evident here, yesterday saw the highest number of claims filed on any day so far, almost 25,000 in one day.
The question for all of us is for how long will this increase in claims continue. The evidence so far is that is that this spike is likely to be ongoing. The Department reports that during week 13 the Department received more than 1.5 million calls.
Despite statements by Department officials, there does NOT appear to be any automated phone system in place for people to file their unemployment claims by phone. The only information so far is how to apply on-line. And, the Department’s FAQ for applying for benefits states only provides this information:
Q: How do I apply?
A: Steps to Apply Online
1. Go to my.unemployment.wisconsin.gov
2. Read and accept Terms and Conditions
3. Create a username and password
4. Logon to access online benefit services
5. Complete your application
Folks are calling into the Department help lines, however, because the on-line system is complicated and difficult to use (an initial claim usually takes an hour to complete and can take several hours and multiple sessions to complete if there are any wrinkles to that claim). This complexity may work well when the system is hardly being used, but complexity gets in the way of a mass need in light of this pandemic.
So, folks are turning to phone lines reserved for assisting claimants with their on-line claims. And, this turn to phone calls is occurring in massive numbers, roughly 15x times than the already record number of initial claims being filed.
The Department’s request for people to use the on-line system does not fix this problem. People are turning to these phone lines because they either lack access to the on-line system in the first place or because they cannot navigate the on-line system despite having access to it.
Note: While closed, public libraries are keeping their wifi on. So, cars in parking lots in rural Wisconsin are now pretty common despite the libraries being closed. We all love our libraries. The Public Service Commission and the Department of Public Instruction have introduced a web-link for finding free wifi hot-spots in Wisconsin.
And, the phone system is also making matters worse [see update below].
Claimants are reporting that the social security number gatekeeper to phone support remains in place. Under this system, claimants are limited to only calling into the Department for help on certain days, depending on whether their social security number ends in an even or odd digit. So, claimants are calling on their wrong day, entering in their social security number, and then being kicked out but not realizing the reason why. So, they call again and again.
In other words, these claims will continue to climb, because there are still more folks trying to file an initial claim than those who have gotten through.
Furthermore, the Wisconsin Policy Forum indicates that the job losses in Wisconsin because of this pandemic are already devastating (25 to 30% unemployment in some counties) and have hit low-wage workers in rural areas of the state the hardest.
Unemployment may well be the only economic engine in this state for the next several months. The Department needs to realize its essential role sooner rather than later.
Update (2 April 2020): My sources within the Department report that the social security number gatekeeper was removed several months ago. So, people are getting disconnected simply because the phone-support system is being crushed with all the calls.
My insiders also report that many of the calls concern ID and password problems with the on-line system. Claimants do not recall their specific ID and password information and cannot get the answers to security questions right. So, they need to call to get on-line access and passwords reset after verifying their identity to staffers.
To handle all of these calls, staffers are now handling phone calls (if not their regular job to begin with) every other work day.
Also, my sources indicate that those who lack on-line access now have the option of filing their claim on the phone with the assistance of a DWD staffer on the phone. The problem right now is getting through on the phone, however.
Update (15 April 2020): The PIN reset issue for people who previously filed for unemployment benefits has been a major problem in many states. The solution for many, like in Wisconsin, requires that the worker contact an agency representative by phone to reset the PIN number, which then contributes to a backlog on the phones as well. Washington state has put in place an easier fix for resetting a workers’ PIN.
Update (17 April 2020): Added a web-link from PSC and DPI for finding free wifi hot-spots.