There has been an unemployment meltdown in Wisconsin. Claimants wait and wait and wait for their cases to be decided, but no one is asking about the extent of these delays or why they are occurring.
Here are some answers.
First, take note of a statistic the Department has been reporting after the pandemic had been underway for a few months: the average number of days from initial application to first payment (or initial determination denying benefits). Rather than decreasing as the number of initial claims and PUA claims have declined and the number of staffers have more than tripled, this number has actually been increasing, going from 19 days to 24 days.
In other words, the Department’s ability to process unemployment applications has gotten worse over the course of this pandemic, not better.
Fewer regular UI claims being paid
Using the federal unemployment data that all states report and which is available for analysis at Unemployment Insurance Data Explorer and based on this federal unemployment data, Wisconsin is actually paying out fewer unemployment claims on a percentage basis during the pandemic than from before the pandemic.
Regular UI claims during the pandemic (March-Aug. 2020) Initial claims First payments Percentage 918,757 294,571 32.06% Regular UI claims prior to the pandemic (Jan. 2018-Feb. 2020) Initial claims First payments Percentage 632,728 245,558 38.81%
So, Wisconsin is actually paying fewer initial claims during the pandemic than before the pandemic. It appears that no other state has a similarly significant decline in claims being paid out during the pandemic.
For comparison, here is what has happened in other states in regards to how many initial applications for regular unemployment benefits are being paid for the same time periods:
State Pre-pandemic Pandemic NC 45.25% 50.27% MI 54.70% 60.53% FL 45.36% 49.76% AR 39.60% 45.98% IN 47.78% 46.77% IL 56.34% 57.72%
Indiana shows a 1% decline during the pandemic, but at least around half of its initial claims are ending up with payment of benefits. Even Florida (!) has managed to pay out more claims during the pandemic than before the pandemic.
These numbers also reveal that the number of claimants receiving regular unemployment in Wisconsin is much lower than in other states, the same states that are decried in the national press as having terrible unemployment systems. During this pandemic in Wisconsin, less than one-third of initial claims have actually led to a payment of regular unemployment benefits. This decline is from roughly 39% of initial claims from before the pandemic. And, unlike all other states, including those who had massive problems with administering all of their pandemic claims, Wisconsin’s handling of these claims is trending down rather than up.
Note: Here is the spreadsheet that has this data.
Because there are errors in the data states report, some of this data is incomplete. For instance, Minnesota reports weekly claims being paid sizable amounts, nearly 91% of all pandemic claims. But, Minnesota also reports only 1.36% of initial claims being paid out. So, first payment data for Minnesota is in error. Another example of an error is the PUA data for Michigan. Even though Michigan is widely-acknowledged leader in paying out PUA benefits, this data for Michigan has zero PUA claims and payments.
These data errors do not appear to explain the claims-filing problems in Wisconsin. The numbers being reported here approximately match what Wisconsin itself is reporting. Moreover, the percentages or proportions of weeks claimed to weeks paid, for instance, match what the Department itself reported on Sept. 1st. So, there do not appear to be errors in what Wisconsin is reporting to the US Dep’t of Labor. The numbers for Wisconsin indicate a very real problem.
Wisconsin’s handling of PUA claims is even worse. Here is Wisconsin and a few other states for which data is available.
State Month Init App First Payment WI Jul 13,298 17,269 WI Jun 13,044 6,286 WI May 23,887 709 WI Apr 43,585 0 WI totals 93,814 24,264 25.86% NC Jul 49,478 27,948 NC Jun 54,338 35,799 NC May 111,094 95,538 NC Apr 42,808 32,582 NC totals 257,718 191,867 74.45% MN Jul 2,877 4,251 MN Jun 4,353 10,089 MN May 14,908 26,682 MN Apr 64,350 46,589 MN Mar 21,622 6,304 MN totals 108,110 93,915 86.87% FL Jun 133,501 126,769 FL May 126,334 105,885 FL Apr 18,273 338 FL totals 278,108 232,992 83.78%
These numbers are staggeringly awful for Wisconsin. Wisconsin is failing to process these claims even though Wisconsin has the fewest number of claims to process among these states. By the end of July, just a quarter of PUA applicants in Wisconsin had their claims paid out. This number is roughly three times less than what is happening in these other states.
Notably, even Florida managed to pay out some PUA claims in April, whereas Wisconsin did not significantly start processing PUA claims until June of this year. No wonder folks in Wisconsin are still waiting on their PUA claims: Wisconsin is doing very little to process these claims and, unlike other states, is not paying out these claims in any way comparable to what is happening in those other states.
No action whatsoever for almost 300,000 claims
Via its weekly data reports, Wisconsin has been reporting on “weeks compensated” rather than initial claims being paid. As a result, those reports say nothing about the experience of individual claimants who are still waiting for any payments. This ‘data’ being reported by the Department is covering up the significant administrative problems that are going on.
But, some actual data can be gleaned from these reports. The Sept. 14th report, for instance, reveals that there have been 902,717 initial applications for regular unemployment benefits during the pandemic, that 98,309 of these are in adjudication, and that 513,870 of these claimants have received regular unemployment benefits. So, based on these numbers, there are 290,538 initial applications that have yet to have ANY action taken whatsoever — no denial, no approval, no nothing.
Note: Above, over 600,000 Wisconsin claimants are reported as still waiting on first payments. Whereas in these weekly data releases, the Department is reporting only around 300,000 still waiting.
The first page of the August 2020 financial report to the Advisory Council seems to confirm that more than 500,000 claimants have been paid regular unemployment benefits in 2020. But, this report also indicates that “in calendar year 2018 and 2019, the number of claimants paid were [only] 130,710 and 129,888, respectively.” That number matches almost exactly what the Department reported to the US Dep’t of Labor prior to the pandemic.
It appears that for its weekly data reports, the Department is including some data as a payment where no actual payment is occurring. The benefit amount reduction, or BAR, comes to mind as a possible explanation. The Department has been illegally using this program to deny $600 PUC benefits to claimants because of prior concealment. Furthermore, the Department typically still counts regular unemployment benefits as paid to these claimant even though they are receiving nothing because of a BAR.
In any case, the Department’s own data indicates that just under 300,000 Wisconsin employees are still waiting on their claims to be paid as of mid-September.
Given that the workforce in Wisconsin is around 3 million workers, this number of 290,538 initial applications indicates that roughly one out of ten Wisconsinites are still waiting on the Department to do something with their claim.
And, as the number of claims being adjudicated has been declining on average by around 407 a week during this pandemic according to the Department’s own numbers of claims awaiting adjudication, the unemployed are going to wait for a long, long time until the Department actually processes their claims. No wonder the average number of days from application to payment or denial is increasing in this state rather than declining.
Breakdowns in claims administration
All of these delays create an additional problem for claimants — the claims-processing procedures are even further clogged.
At the end of March, some major problems and bottlenecks in the claims-filing process were identified. Other than what was noted then, many of those bottlenecks continue to exist.
On May 12th, as the claims piled up, processing delays were enormous: a month was needed just to process a faxed or mailed document for an unemployment claim and more than a week just to get a document recognized by the hearing office after being received.
Now in mid-September it still takes around 30 days for a claim document sent by mail or fax to be processed. And, information sent to a hearing office still takes 5+ days to be processed. Furthermore, while the clogged phone lines to reach a claim specialist have been opened up, it is now incredibly difficult to contact the hearing office by phone. In my experience, it takes numerous phones calls over a day or two and then a hold of 30 to 70 minutes or more before I can get through to a hearing office staffer.
Because Wisconsin (unlike all other states) has done little to nothing to change the claims-filing process in light of the pandemic, these kind of delays and obstacles remain. Appeals of benefits being denied for illogical reasons which are filed in August will likely not be heard at a hearing until October or maybe even early November.
The unemployment system in this state is broken.
Update (17 Sept. 2020): The NYTimes has an excellent primer on unemployment data and the hazards of drawing conclusions from continuing claims (which the Department itself has featured in its weekly data reports). The focus above in this post is on initial claims and first payments, not continuing claims and total number of unemployed or total amounts paid out. Initial claims and first payments should be relatively straight forward numbers.
Update (25 Sept. 2020): The Economic Policy Institute provides an explanation of about how pandemic claims data is inflated in some states and how unemployment rates under-report actual unemployment and both under-employment.
There is no reason to think that Wisconsin is over-reporting its claims data, however, or that Wisconsin’s unemployment rate (which is based on a national survey) is somehow not also under-reporting unemployment and under-employment in this state.