Previous posts detailed the length of time and number of cases in the unemployment backlog in part 1, some of the mistakes by the Department that allow cases to be re-opened in part 2, a place for stories and advice about how to find assistance in part 3, how most claims in Wisconsin — and unlike in other states — are being denied and thereby creating a ginormous backlog in hearings in part 4, and in part 5 how the Department’s big push to fix the backlog in December 2020 was creating a hearings backlog and not addressing the root causes of all the delays.
Hard data regarding the Department’s handling of initial claims is now available about that big push for clearing the backlog.
Date First 15 days 21 days 35 days payments 01/31/2021 18,094 64.70% 70.10% 77.00% 12/31/2020 35,548 49.50% 54.50% 61.70% 11/30/2020 13,676 65.00% 67.80% 71.70% 10/31/2020 10,249 56.10% 58.70% 62.20% 09/30/2020 8,709 50.40% 53.00% 57.10% 08/31/2020 11,144 53.10% 55.10% 57.50% 07/31/2020 15,410 39.20% 41.20% 43.90% 06/30/2020 18,862 39.30% 40.40% 42.60% 05/31/2020 36,273 33.00% 35.90% 47.50% 04/30/2020 183,447 81.90% 88.60% 98.80% 03/31/2020 26,472 95.50% 97.60% 99.00% pandemic 377,884 57.06% 60.26% 65.36% prepandemic 239,601 86.80% 92.86% 96.85% (Jan. 2018 thru Feb. 2020)
As evident here, December 2020 saw a marked increase in first payments of initial claims, around 2.5x the number of payments in November 2020. Unfortunately, the number of first payments declined by half in January 2021.
This increase in first payments for December, however, is good news because the hearings backlog did not skyrocket. Previously, I had feared that the hearings backlog would be at 25,000. At the end of January 2021, the hearings backlog had only climbed to 15,915, up from 15,744 in December 2020.
So, kudos to the Department for clearing some cases by getting those cases approved.
Still, systemic problems with the processing of unemployment claims remain. This first payment data indicates that the effort to clear the backlog was a one-time event. TMJ4 reports that the processing delays have arisen in part because the Department added a bunch of new staffers with minimal training who then focus on specific issues rather than looking at the big picture.
Second, way too many initial claims are still NOT being paid. Through January 2021, Wisconsin has only made first payments of 27.98% of 147,260 PUA initial claims. For comparison, North Carolina has made first payments in 60% of 415,747 PUA initial claims, and New Jersey has made first payment of 76% out of 707,167 PUA initial claims.
For initial claims of regular unemployment benefits, Wisconsin has only made first payments of 30.85% out of 1,248,186 initial claims through the end of January 2021. Prior to the pandemic, the percentage of initial claims that ended up with a first payment in Wisconsin was 38.81%. So, Wisconsin is actually paying out fewer initial claims during the pandemic than from before the pandemic.
In comparison, Colorado’s first payments during the pandemic are at 64.20% out of 775,053 initial claims. Prior to the pandemic, the percentage of initial claims with first payments in Colorado was at 65.40%. In North Carolina, 44.82% of 1,642,172 initial claims for regular unemployment benefits during the pandemic led to first payments (prior to the pandemic, North Carolina was paying 45.25% of initial claims for regular unemployment benefits). Only New Jersey has seen a sharp decline in first payments for regular unemployment claims, paying 38.29% of 2,025,278 initial claims, down from 51.72% prior to the pandemic.
So, the claim-filing problems in Wisconsin are more severe than in any other state, including states like New Jersey and Colorado that still have COBOL-based mainframes on the back end of their claim-filing systems. The majority of initial claims in Wisconsin simply are NOT being paid at all.
Third and more troubling, there is now a major backlog with unemployment hearings that shows no signs of being cleared anytime soon. During the pandemic, the number of appeals filed per month have averaged 4,138 per month, while the number of appeal tribunal decisions has averaged 2,958 per month, more than a thousand less than the number of appeals. In January 2021, that gap declined to around 500 more appeals than decisions.
So, the size of this hearing backlog of around 16,000 cases now means that claimants will likely have to wait eight or more months for their cases to be heard.
And, the number of initial claims is still running more than 2x higher than normal. As a result, there are plenty of cases still in the pipeline.
w/e 2021 Week Ratio 2021 2020 Difference 12/26/20 52 1.36 14,235 10,483 3,752 01/02/21 1 1.49 19,161 12,854 6,307 (new data source) 01/09/21 2 2.73 22,539 8,255 14,284 01/16/21 3 2.66 16,977 6,388 10,589 01/23/21 4 2.52 15,439 6,134 9,305 01/30/21 5 2.48 15,584 6,280 9,304 02/06/21 6 2.28 14,970 6,579 8,391 02/13/21 7 2.79 16,205 5,808 10,397 02/20/21 8 2.66 16,207 6,098 10,109 02/27/21 9 2.35 13,272 5,658 7,614 03/06/21 10 2.41 12,173 5,052 7,121 03/13/21 11 Totals 2.22 176,762 79,589 97,173 Source: https://dwd.wisconsin.gov/uistats/
Out of 63 SSDI-PUA claimants I am currently working with, 21 are still waiting for their benefits, now a year into the pandemic. Only 26 (less than half) have been paid their PUA benefits without additional hiccups (and most of them were not paid until August and September of 2020). Most of the 21 claimants still waiting for any payment have yet to even have a hearing.
26 — Yes — PUA paid
13 –No — PUA claim denied
5 — ? — payment status unknown
8 — Yes & No — paid some, and then denied
6 — Not covid19 — denied because of no pandemic-related job loss
2 — Not A&A — denied because not able and available
3 — Yes, some — paid some PUA, waiting on rest
63 — Total claimants
As usual, John Oliver explains how truly broken unemployment is throughout the nation:
The failures in the unemployment system is a national problem. What has happened in Wisconsin is simply a “leading” indicator of how just how broken the system is. This propublica description of the claim-filing problems in North Carolina, for instance, also describes many of the same issues in Wisconsin about changes on making claim-filing more difficult, reducing already low employer taxes even further, and cutting off eligibility through additional claim-filing requirements.
Reporters have informed me that claimants are only winning around 30% of their appeal tribunal decisions after an appeal of an initial determining denying their claim (roughly the same percentage prior to the pandemic). That percentage is terrible. Almost all of the denials I am seeing are without any factual or legal merit but occur because the investigator has found a piece of information on the initial claim or a weekly certification to be less than perfect for establishing eligibility. This low win rate for unemployment hearings indicates that the biases against allowing benefits to claimants remain solidly in place: administrative law judges are looking for reasons and evidence for getting claims denied rather than explaining and helping claimants to get those denials over-turned.
So, having representation for these hearings is even more vital now, given the complexity of Wisconsin unemployment to begin with when coupled to the all of the new federal benefit programs that have been added.
I have done a video interview with the Wisconsin state bar where I plead for more lawyers to get involved with these unemployment cases.
Lawyers who want to help should read the unemployment primer, the Workers’ Guide to Unemployment Law, and look at the training done in May 2020 by Legal Action and Judicare. Marquette law school is providing the videos and materials for that training as well as other training sessions at this link.
Finally, law students at UW-Madison Law School have stepped up during this crisis and helped out with hundreds of claimants. They have done a remarkable job. Anyone interested in supporting the clinic’s efforts should visit the clinic’s gofundme page.