Claim-Filing questions in Wisconsin

Do you want to know the questions you will be asked when filing an unemployment claim in Wisconsin?

Unfortunately, Wisconsin does NOT provide those question beforehand to claimants. Wisconsin does NOT even any longer provide those questions in the Handbook for Claimants. Compare this 2010 handbook with the current version.

Other states do provide these questions to claimants. They even explain how to answer these questions. For example: Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, and PUA claim in New York. In Massachusetts, you can even go through the claim-filing process for PUA benefits without a user-id just to see what the system is like.

Through an open records request and some sleuthing on my part, the Department has finally produced what guidance it currently has.

Note: Previous requests to the prior administration for this information were denied. So, kudos to the current administration for making this information available and starting the process of making the claim-filing process more open and understandable.

As you can see, the claim-filing questions for regular unemployment benefits — both the initial claim and the weekly certification claim — are extensive, being 60 or more pages in length.

The weekly certifications for PUA benefits are also lengthy, being 29 and 35 pages in length themselves. The initial application for PUA benefits is only 6 pages, since little to no explanation of the questions and options is provided.

And, as noted already with the “able” question about being able to work full-time, these questions do NOT follow state unemployment law.

Finally, missing from this information are:

  • Any claim-filing questions or guidance in Hmong
  • Initial unemployment application for regular unemployment benefits in Spanish
  • Initial application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) in Spanish
  • Initial application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) in Spanish
  • Weekly certification for PUA self-employed claims in Spanish
  • Weekly certification for PUA non-self-employed claims in Spanish
  • Certification for Lost Wage Assistance (LWA) benefits in Spanish

Note: from my recollection, the weekly certification for regular unemployment benefits in Spanish is new. I do not think these forms existed prior to October 2020. This LWA benefits payment announcement indicates that Spanish continues to be an after-thought.

Update (6 Jan. 2021): It should also be pointed out that the claimant portal itself is English-only. Spanish-speaking claimants are simply told to get an interpreter.

Spanish portal options

Update 12 April 2021): Added an image for the post.

Identity theft problems with unemployment

Other states with easier to use claim-filing processes have been hit hard by identity theft issues.

Wisconsin has not seen a comparable surge in such cases. But, the problem is still happening here to some extent, and a Fox6 report indicates that it can be near impossible to fix once it happens.

Fischer filed for unemployment insurance online, as the state encourages. As a result, her banking information was in her unemployment portal. She says investigators told her the “unknown imposter or imposters” changed her banking information several times so the money would go to them.

When Fischer first reached out to FOX6, her case had been caught up in adjudication for weeks and she had been unable to access a single unemployment payment.

* * *

After speaking to FOX6, Fischer says the state released some of her unemployment money to the correct account. However, investigators tell her it could take two years to repair the identity fraud damage. She is still in debt, and is now receiving notices that someone set up an unauthorized bank account in her name.

This kind of difficulty in getting benefits paid out after an identity theft are common.

However the identity theft happens, the Department still generally presumes you are responsible for your claim-filing until you prove otherwise. For instance, a client came to me after the Department charged him with fraud for receiving unemployment benefits under fraudulent circumstances. So, I ended up sitting across from program integrity staffers who grilled my client like he was a criminal under interrogation for claims he could not have physically received.

Department records indicated that someone other than my client changed the address to which his unemployment checks were being sent to a place where my client never lived (he was living in another city at the time). I pointed out that issue to the interrogator. This program integrity investigator, however, thought my client was in cahoots with the person who apparently stole his login credentials and wanted him to confess to a conspiracy with the unknown person who filed fake unemployment claims in my client’s name.

Note: The details of what happened — checks sent to an address where my client did not live — were known to the Department at the start. Those records indicated when address changes were made to his unemployment account (by someone pretending to be him and calling the Department up). Not until a specific request for those records did my client actually learn how the “theft” of unemployment benefits had occurred, as the Department refused to tell him why it initially was accusing him of unemployment fraud. All he knew is that he never filed the claims and never received the money from those claims.

As indicated in the Fox6 report, the Department has instituted some systems to make automated attacks more difficult. But, those preventative tactics do little to stop identity theft issues (where the login credentials are already in the possession of someone else). The Department’s main mechanism to discourage filing unemployment claims by identity theft has been to make the claim-filing system difficult to begin with. As noted in the Fox6 report, instituting some form of two-factor authentication should be a priority. But, that kind of security is, so far, not available in Wisconsin.

So for now, all Wisconsin residents need to be cautious with unemployment, even if NOT filing any claims at the moment. The Department maintains an updated list of fraud alerts. All claimants should be checking this list on a weekly basis.

Another useful tip: Always use a distinct, separate password for every on-line account you have.

Even if not filing a claim for unemployment benefits, connect to your unemployment portal or call the regular claim hot line at 414-435-7069 or 844-910-3661 or the PUA hot line at 608-318-7100 to inquire about any benefits paid in your name. For help printing out your benefit payment history from the on-line portal, see the relevant section of this post.

Finally, if you suspect someone has stolen your identity for filing an unemployment claim in your name, as soon as possible call the fraud hot line at 800-909-9472 to report that suspected identity theft.

FoxConn is vaporware

Not much to say about the reporting by the Verge on the disaster that is FoxConn in Wisconsin. The picture presented in this article is of vaporware: no actual product plans were ever in place for anything in Wisconsin and the company has struggled since to come up with something.

Still, I do wish I could have raced some of those golf carts around the empty warehouse. That sounded fun.

The sad news is that politics continues to divide on reality. Empty buildings, nothing being manufactured, and an utter failure to even hire a minimum of 520 jobs (when the factory should be employing at least a 1000 now if it was legit; and it was expected to have 2080 employees at the end of 2019 on that path to 13,000) still does not matter to those who supported this project.

Terry Gou’s response continues to promise the world to the politicians who play ball with the company. At least good con men realize when the jig is up.

A billion dollars in land and infrastructure spending has been wasted on some empty buildings.

Update (29 Oct. 2020): Bruce Murphy runs down the actual costs of FoxConn: at least “$1.44 billion charged to the citizens of Wisconsin.” Yikes.

The profit in unemployment concealment

The pandemic rages on, and unemployment remains an economic lifeblood for hundreds of thousands in Wisconsin.

Yet, unemployment has also been a dangerous option for some time now, because the Department considers any claim-filing mistake to be fraudulent. When a mistake is discovered, the Department presumes the mistake was intentional, and the claimant must then explain why that mistake was actually not intentional and just an accident.

The Department considers any apology for a mistake, an admission that you lacked awareness or knowledge of the unemployment issue, or a failure to look up the relevant information in the claimant handbook or the Department website as an admission of guilt. Despite the statutory requirement that unemployment concealment (aka fraud) must still be intentional Wis. Stat. § 108.04(11)(g)(1), the Department mandates that claimants have “a duty of care to provide an accurate and complete response to each inquiry made by the department in connection with his or her receipt of benefits” Wis. Stat. § 108.04(11)(g)(2).

By this same law, Wisconsin does not allow physical or mental disabilities to excuse a claim-filing mistake (unless the claimant has provided specific notice to the Department of that disability in some not yet provided mechanism) while also mandating that claimants have a responsibility to read all information the Department makes available on its website or during the on-line only claims-filing process. Id. In this way, Wisconsin uses one part of state statutes to over-ride another part — that the mistake be intentional in the first place — in order to charge concealment with almost every claim-filing mistake made.

Note: In 2016, the Department re-wrote this section of unemployment law to reflect its practices in pursuing concealment. The Department, however, failed to remove the requirement that concealment still be an intentional act. So, notwithstanding its other changes, a factual finding of intent to defraud is still needed for a charge of unemployment concealment. Domingo Ramos, UI Hearing Nos. 16606402MW and 16606403MW (23 Feb. 2017) (applying new concealment definition, Commission finds that claimant’s job search mistakes were not intentional and so not concealment).

This blog is full of stories, decisions by the Labor and Industry Review Commission, and even reports on how the Department has turned claim-filing mistakes into strict liability for the purposes of charging concealment.

And, here is an expert report, describing how misunderstandings over who is the liable employer or over confusion over misleading questions establish by law that the claim-filing mistakes are unintentional.

And, here is a run-down of the numerous reasons for why concealment should not be found and which the Department has ignored and continues to ignore.

In other words, it is obvious that the Department is NOT following its own law in charging concealment as zealously and as much as it has been doing. The Department ignores this law, moreover, because it can. Claimants have to appeal the initial determinations that charge concealment, and then usually appeal decisions of an administrative law judge who follows Department guidance rather than the law on this issue.

Note: Not surprisingly, African-Americans in Wisconsin have faced the worst consequences of this concealment putsch.

One person I know of failed to report a yoga class she taught on her weekly claims after being laid off from her regular job. She was paid for those yoga class six months after teaching them: $30 a class for 12 classes. So, when she was paid she then contacted the Department about what she should do. The Department charged her with concealment because she failed to report her yoga class wages when she earned them, even though reporting wages when received is NOT fraudulent. Waoh-Tobin v. Banana Republic, UI Hearing No. 16602900MW (18 October 2016).

The kicker is that her failure to report that $30 in wages from teaching a yoga class was inconsequential to her unemployment claim. Under Wisconsin’s partial benefits calculator, the first $30 in wages is NOT counted against the unemployment benefits you receive. So, her mistake literally had zero impact on her weekly unemployment benefits.

But, because the Department charged concealment, she had to pay back her entire weekly benefit amount of $315 a week for 11 weeks (she received no unemployment benefits during her waiting week), plus a 40% administrative penalty, plus a forfeiture of future unemployment benefits — a benefit amount reduction — of $630 a week for 12 weeks. In other words, a $30 mistake for 12 weeks ($360 in toto) that has no actual affect on her weekly benefits, for the purposes of concealment, leads to:

$3,465 concealment penalty
$1,386 administrative penalty
$7,560 forfieture of future unemployment =
$12,411 she needed to repay

Why would the Department do all of this? Well, besides making unemployment more difficult, the Department now gets to pocket some of the money it collects. The 40% administrative penalty is actually two separate penalties: a 15% penalty that goes back into the unemployment trust fund and a 25% penalty that goes into a separate program integrity fund. As of September 2020, the Department had $15,115,000 in its program integrity coffer (line 228), slightly down from the $15,539,000 in the program integrity coffer in September 2019.

But, the combination of all of these penalties is the real story. Here is a table of the amounts the Department has assessed for concealment (based on the Department’s annual fraud reports).

Over-payments assessed, 2011-2019

As a percentage of the unemployment benefits being paid out, concealment has become a significant portion of those benefits. Non-fraud over-payments have been around 2% of unemployment benefits paid out for the years 2011 thru 2019. But, over-payments connected to fraud significantly jumped in 2013 when new penalties were introduced and were 9.37% of all benefits paid out in 2014. It is no wonder that the fraud over-payments assessed declined over time after 2014, as folks caught in the concealment trap for their claim-filing mistakes probably stopped filing claims altogether.

Note: After 2015, the Department started using all debt collection tools at its disposal, including levies of bank accounts, liens on cars and real estate, intercept of tax refunds, and even wage garnishments. In late 2018, the Department also reversed the order of how it collected from unemployment benefits. Previously, the Department only applied a benefit amount reduction to unemployment benefits after the concealment and administrative penalties were completely repaid. Now, the Department applies the benefit amount reduction to unemployment benefits first, because it can only collect that over-payment through unemployment benefits. The concealment and administrative penalties can be collected through all other available mechanisms, even when the claimant avoids filing for unemployment benefits.

Incredibly, all the fraud charging did little over time to actually curb fraud or even prevent or discourage mistakes. The percentage of non-fraud over-payments to benefits paid out has remained relatively consistent during these years: from a high of 2.22% in 2011 to a low of 1,74% in 2016. As such, it appears that mistakes are relatively constant even as the claim-filing process has undergone major changes (from being a phone and in-person system in 2011 to an on-line only system starting in 2017). So, it appears that “fraud” is largely a product of Department discretion rather than any actual description of claimants intentionally filing false unemployment claims.

Data on unemployment collections indicates how successfully the Department has “recovered” these amounts from claimants. Collections for fraud as a percentage of benefits paid out jumped to over 2% in 2012, approached 3% in 2013, and was over 4% thereafter (hitting 5.24% in 2016) until 2019, when it dropped to just 3.66%.

Over-payments collected, 2011-2019

The ratio of fraud to non-fraud over-payments was roughly 1-to-1 in 2011, but then began climbing and was more than 2-to-1 in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Hence, “fraud” collections increased and remained high even as the benefits being paid out plummeted. Furthermore, the penalties and collection costs going to the Department only declined slightly after 2016 (an increase from 2015 even as benefits paid declined by nearly $100 million) and was still at $1.7 million in 2019.

These numbers reveal that the Department in its discretion charges fraud to keep its own coffers filled. Like a police officer who is ordered to issue so many speeding tickets a day, the Department is now charging fraud as a departmental imperative rather than trying to assist claimants to make the claim-filing system easier to use.

Note: The toxic icing on the cake for the claimant charged with concealment for not reporting her yoga class wages was the additional hurdle that came with the pandemic: being denied her $600 PUC benefit because the Department considers a benefit amount reduction to not be a forfeiture of unemployment benefits. In this way, the Department prolongs the pain of its concealment prosecution while also undercutting the whole point with pandemic unemployment relief of keeping the economy afloat.

As of October 5th, the Department reports that 937,378 initial claims have led to 527,897 claimants receiving $3,862,512,543 in PUC, PEUC, PUA, and regular unemployment benefits. That $3.8+ billion already dwarfs the nearly $2.1 billion that was paid out in 2011 for 445,538 claimants for the entire year.

Note: Here is some historical data from the last recession (from an early 2014 financial report to the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council):

Year   Claimants  $ Paid
2007   332,982    908,240,298 (only regular UI)
2008   386,574  1,243,700,322 (regular UI and start of EUC benefits)
2009   566,353  3,166,852,114 (regular UI and EUC)
2010   530,886  3,118,412,271 (regular UI and EUC)
2011   445,538  2,076,607,917 (regular UI and EUC)
2012   366,829  1,571,815,129 (regular UI and EUC)
2013   312,325  1,283,637,389 (regular UI and EUC)
. . . 
2018   130,710   ~372,300,000 (regular UI)
2019   129,888   ~375,900,000 (regular UI)

With the pandemic and the now hundreds of thousands of new claimants and billions of dollars available for the taking, I fear that the Department is licking its chops in anticipation of how much it can recoup from these unsuspecting folks.

Update (15 Oct. 2020): Thanks to a financial report today and a January financial report, I now have 2018 and 2019 data on how many claimants received unemployment benefits. In these years, the number of claimants and the amount received was around one-third of what existed in 2007. Wow.

In other words, from 2007 to 2018 the unemployment system has changed so much in the intervening years that the number of people managing to receive unemployment benefits and the amount of benefits entering the state economy had been cut by two-thirds.

Now, the unemployment system is supposed to respond to a pandemic-driven economic crisis. Yet, as of the October financial report and the Oct. 13 press release, of the 952,108 initial claims filed, only 546,875 have received regular unemployment benefits totaling $1,229.9 million. This data means that over 400,000 initial claims have NOT been paid.

And, in case you were wondering: the trust fund balance as October 1st is around $1.26 billion.

Update (4 Jan. 2021): Added an image for the post. And, Fox6 has an excellent story and a podcast describing how the Department charges fraud for accidental claim-filing mistakes.

The story of unemployment modernization

Much has been made during this pandemic about how woeful the computer systems in Wisconsin are for handling unemployment claims.

The Century Foundation has released an extensive report on October 5th about the efforts to modernization unemployment systems. This report is timely because, first, unemployment has become a major part of the economic response to the pandemic. After all, 695,000 new claims in October 1982 was the previous highest number of initial claims filed in a week. With the pandemic, new claims exceeded 6.6 million for two weeks in a row and have been more than 2 million every week since.

Second, in Wisconsin the old mainframe system for handling unemployment claims has been a featured explanation for why processing of clams has taken so long.

Note: While the backbone for Wisconsin’s unemployment system is an old mainframe, Wisconsin has in fact instituted at the front end a great deal of the modernization efforts done in other states (and Wisconsin has gone even further than many other states). For instance, Wisconsin instituted a detailed on-line only initial application and weekly certification process. So, while Wisconsin has not truly modernized its claim-filing system, it has incorporated many, many of the changes connected to modernization at the front end that employees see and deal with when filing their unemployment claims.

As this report indicates, modernization has hardly been the solution for delays in processing unemployment claims. Here are some key findings:

This analysis shows a systematic connection between modernization and the increasing rates of denials of those who apply for benefits, but not a statistically significant difference in state recipiency rates. In other words, modernization has presented additional challenges for those who make the effort to apply for benefits.

Report at 36.

Once the analysis is limited to those workers who have applied for UI benefits, the impacts of modernization are stark. Among modernized states, the number of unemployment insurance denials increased by 16.7 percent from 2002 to 2018.

Report at 37.

Denials relating to work search and availability to work are driving a wedge between the states. The increase in denial rates among modernized states is driven by one type of denials — nonseparation denials. Nonseparation denials typically occur when an unemployed worker is found to have failed to meet the law’s requirement for being able and available for work and searching for a job. Nonseparation denials include cases when a worker fails to comply with ongoing eligibility requirements for UI like certifying their weekly work search activities or failing to report to a required appointment with a job counselor. Modernized systems have brought significant changes to the determinations of eligibility for these questions, including the ability to ask more detailed questions to claimants about their availability to work and more regularly request names connected with job search activities. As we learned from the stakeholder feedback in our case studies, these online systems can be more difficult to navigate than the phone-based systems that they replaced.

Report at 37 (footnote omitted, emphasis in original).

Modernization clearly impacts the quality of nonmonetary determinations, as sixteen out of the twenty states analyzed did worse than the national average. In addition, just over half of modernized states also experienced a decline in their ability to move through all the steps of the determination process and deliver a payment on time. Future modernizing states should be aware that changes to businesses processes that came along with modernization can slow state payment times during and can lead to declines in quality.

Report at 39.

In the main, modernization has led to making unemployment more difficult and inaccessible to workers:

Effects of UI modernization

While not in the report, the authors indicate several additional issues that all of us should pay attention to in regards to modernization of unemployment claims-filing:

  • Even after modernization, claims filed by phone continue to occur at a consistent rate. So, phone systems remain vital even with new kinds of on-line claim-filing have been put into place (despite the lack of broadband access in this state, Wisconsin ended the option to file claims by phone in 2017).
  • Modernization should ensure 24/7 access to the new claim-filing system as well as ensure equivalent access to that system through smart phones.
  • Modernization should create mechanisms for claimants to upload documents.
  • Password reset protocols need to be updated so that there are options before calling in to a live person for that reset.
  • Set up call back and chat technology for claimants to rely on when filing their claims so that they can get their questions answered.
  • Translate on-line materials into commonly spoken languages in the state.
  • Evaluate administrative processes and requirements that slow benefit payments.
  • Engage stake holders in the design process rather than designing around the agency’s own concerns and agenda.
  • Allow for extensive testing and redesign of options before roll out.
  • Provide multiple channels of communication and institute media campaigns to explain the new system.
  • Staff up call centers as the new system rolls out and questions arise.

The goal here, in short, is to create the kind of customer service that supports employees who file unemployment claims and makes the on-line system actually easier to use and less mistake-prone.

Update (1 Feb. 2021): For the sake of completeness, here are some additional resources and information on the topic of unemployment modernization. Most of these resources predate the pandemic:

The report proposes new and stronger federal standards for state UI programs in the areas of benefit adequacy and eligibility, job-retention and reemployment support, and financing, alongside proven tools and financial resources, to ensure that working people across the country have access to sufficient income and reemployment support when they unexpectedly lose their jobs. In the absence of federal action, the national goals of the UI program—to support families through periods without work and earnings, and to stabilize the economy during difficult times—will continue to be undercut by poorly performing states.

The Jobseeker’s Allowance, or JSA, is a modest, short-term benefit for individuals who don’t qualify for UI, such as independent contractors, caregivers returning to work, and young workers trying to find their footing in the labor market. Through the proposed JSA, on-demand economy workers and other independent contractors would be eligible for protection against involuntary earnings losses for the first time ever.

How to navigate Wisconsin’s unemployment portal

Update (31 March 2021 and 30 April 2021): With the Department’s new portal, these instructions have been updated with a new, how-to-navigate-the-portal post. Please go to those new instructions, as the guide here is now outdated.

After logging in to your web portal for unemployment benefits at, here are some helpful guides about how to navigate this portal and find relevant information.

Viewing initial determinations

Unemployment issues are at first decided via initial determinations, so these documents are what you need to read carefully when they are issued (as noted already, delays in processing unemployment claims are monumental right now, so do not expect these initial determinations to be issued soon after filing your unemployment claim).

To see the initial determinations connected to your claim, do NOT click on the View ALL Determinations option that appears on the main screen (this option only takes you to a listing of determination that may or may not be complete and which may or may not be available to you).

Do NOT select the View ALL Determinations option

Rather, go to the menu under My Information and select the Document History option:

Document History menu

You will then see all the documents the Department currently has available to you:

Documents available for viewing

To see the actual determination, select the View option next to the document described as a determination to see a PDF version of that document. The creation date will tell you when the Department issued that document or initial determination. Here is a description of some of the key information on an initial determination:

Initial Determination labeled

Viewing what benefits have been paid (or not paid)

To see which weeks have been paid unemployment benefits, go to Print Benefit Summary under My Information.

Print Benefits Summary

You will then be prompted for how to create this benefits summary display: web page or PDF.

Seeing your benefit payments

Select the Creat a PDF document option and select the checkbox for By choosing to create a formal summary, I acknowledge that it will include personal information such as my name and Social Security Number.

Then, click on the Create Document button. A PDF document detailing your benefit payments will appear. On the second page of that PDF document, you will something like the following for your own benefits payment history:

Benefits Payment History

Note: Select PDF document rather than HTML page (aka, a web page), as the web page version will include a DWD watermark that makes much of the page unreadable.

Note: You do NOT need a printer to see this document. The PDF document should be viewable on any computer or smart phone.

Sending a PDF document via e-mail

Do NOT send any PDF documents via e-mail message that have confidential information like social security numbers or bank account information.

  • On a smart phone: when viewing the PDF, click on the share button and then select the e-mail option. Make sure to then write in an e-mail address and a subject.
  • On a desktop: download the PDF document, start up your e-mail program, and then attach the PDF to a new e-mail address that you are sending to someone (make sure to fill out a subject and to whom the message is being sent).