Of course the unemployment phone system melted down

An audit of the unemployment phone system for Wisconsin revealed last week that from March 15th through June 30th — 3.5 months — only 0.5% of the calls to the help system managed to get through.

Not until the two additional phone call centers were up and running and the number of calls fell to 55,698 during the week ending 8/22/20 were there finally no calls blocked.

Much of the criticism concerning this collapse of the phone system has centered on the legal changes enacted by Republicans under Gov. Walker. See here and here.

Yes, the whole point of those “reforms” was to make unemployment much more difficult to claimants.

But, that criticism fails to acknowledge the real and practical problems claimants have to deal with right now, and how extensive the changes to the claims-filing process have been. So, the meltdown with the phones should not have been a surprise to anyone paying attention to the unemployment system.

First, the phone system became a useless appendage years ago. Starting in 2013 and 2014 when the Department began going to an on-line system in place of the phone system, the Department shifted the entire claims-filing system to being on-line only as of 1 Sept. 2017. In 2016, the Department had already stopped updating the claim-filing system by phone and then shut it down completely in 2017.

Second, for the last several years before the pandemic only workers who regularly filed for unemployment and so knew how to manage the claims-filing system already were filing unemployment claims. The unemployment system became specialized knowledge of a few workers rather than the mass economic engine it was originally designed to be.

Third, because the phone system had no essential purpose anymore, staffing and support for it was cut to a bare minimum. In 2019, claimants who called the phone system with their questions about their claims were often told simply to go back on-line and try again or that the information they were asking about was available on-line already. Accordingly, so few people were calling the phone system that by early 2020 restrictions by social security number on when a claimant could call the phone system were removed.

Fourth, as the on-line system gained new and more extensive warnings about how claimants should be careful in their responses, little to nothing was done to actually provide relevant information. Indeed, the Department simply added information to the claimants’ handbook when the problem was pointed out through litigation. The result was that even more folks were discouraged from filing their claims because responsibility for administering the unemployment system is being passed from the Department to them.

So, all aspects of the claims-filing process were problematic and difficult. Confronted with the on-line system as their only option but needing to ask someone what all the confusing and un-explained questions were asking them, they turned to the only other avenue available to them: the phone system. Given how bad the on-line system claim-filing system is and the wave of claims that arose because of the pandemic, it is no surprise that hundreds of thousands of people turned to the phone system with their questions. And, like the on-line system, the phone system also failed them.

But, the folks who need unemployment right now do not want to know why the system is so difficult to manage and why it became that way. All they want is a system that is easier to manage and which answers their questions, and as far as I can tell there is no law or technological hurdle mandating a difficult unemployment system.

Indeed, the Department could do much to make the system easier to navigate by simply following current legal requirements rather than ignoring those requirements.

  • Following state legal requirements rather than ignoring those requirements that expand eligibility (for example, how disabled workers report that able and available status).
  • In contrast to all other states, providing on-line guidance to claimants about the questions being asked them on their claims outside of the claim-filing process itself.
  • Making the on-line claims-filing process available in languages other than English, as required by federal law. See UIPL 02-16 (1 Oct. 2015) at 8.
  • Actually providing a viable alternative to the on-line only claims-filing process, as required by federal law. See UIPL 02-16 (1 Oct. 2015) at 11-12 (at least two distinct methods for filing unemployment claims must be available to claimants).

All of these problems existed in 2016 and in 2018. And, these same problems continue to exist today, 28 September 2020. There is no legal reason for why these problems should continue. Indeed, the “law” indicates that they should not.

There is also another reason to fix these problems with the claims-filing process in general. Claims for regular unemployment are on the upswing once again during the last few weeks, accelerating at a faster pace than for the same weeks last year.

Pandemic claims ratio in Wisconsin

And, with Covid-19 cases sky-rocketing of late, there could easily be a second wave of unemployment claims in the late fall. The Department needs to make necessary changes NOW, not keep putting those changes off for when the pandemic might be over. At this rate, the pandemic and the unemployment crisis will not be ending for maybe another year at best.

Hearing offices are already being overwhelmed with cases requiring adjudication. The system in Wisconsin cannot continue as is without significant reform now.

Update (26 Oct. 2020): Added missing word (at least two distinct methods for filing unemployment claims must be available to claimants).

2 thoughts on “Of course the unemployment phone system melted down

  1. Great points, Victor. The system was designed to try to be difficult, and as you mention the learning costs were dumped onto everyday people who understandably don’t know all of the tricks to file unemployment, because THEY’D NEVER FILED UNEMPLOYMENT.

    Combine that with the massive increase in volume, and you have a mess on your hands. Instead of having presumed eligibility, we make the individuals have to prove a ton of things that they don’t track and don’t know where to find.

  2. Pingback: Unemployment delays, part 7 | Wisconsin Unemployment

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