This report describes how unemployment is supposed to work, why national or universal standards for unemployment benefits are needed, how the financing of unemployment benefits needs to be stabilized and broadened, how numerous sectors of the economy have been artificially excluded from unemployment benefits and why those workers should now be included, why the duration of benefits cannot and should not be curtailed with artificial constraints that have nothing to do with current economic conditions, and why benefit levels needed to be increased and expanded.
There is also another effort at improving unemployment through a playbook of reforms. This effort is not so much concerned with substantial changes to the scope and scale of unemployment benefits as to how states like Wisconsin administer the unemployment benefit program. The goal here is create a customer-centric focus that seeks to balance the needs of a state agency for efficient and reliable claims-processing with claimants’ needs for understandable and easy-to-use and to-navigate systems. As explained here: “The technology itself is nowhere near as relevant as the surrounding goals, metrics, policies, and processes.”
Finally, PUA benefits were introduced during the pandemic because far too many workers have been classified as gig workers for whom regular unemployment benefits are no longer available. A major support group for these workers and for PUA benefits has emerged at ExtendPUA.org.
With PUA benefits slated to expire on 4 Sept. 2021, I expect this group to become a focal point for expanding regular unemployment to cover the workers for whom PUA benefits were intended. The need for these kind of job loss support is essential for a vibrant and stable national economy. As Nicole Marquez of NELP explains:
Widespread reliance on pandemic unemployment programs should be seen as an economic success in a time of great need: our government is providing people the help they need to keep a roof over their families’ heads until they can get back on their feet. In fact, the biggest hindrance to economic recovery is not unemployment; it’s a shortage of good jobs that value the dignity of workers, pay a livable wage, and provide safe workplace conditions, together with inadequate work supports such as child care and elder care.
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This is the moment for our movement to be heard. State and federal governments need to make sweeping fixes to our unemployment systems, not undermine them further. Grassroots organizations like Unemployed Workers United, Unemployed Action, and Step Up Louisiana are demanding change. Unemployed people and their allies are organizing and advocating for necessary reforms that will transform the system so that we’ll all have the support we need in the next crisis, without leaving anyone behind.
Note: 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, 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, in part 6 how a December 2020 push had cleared some of the back log with issuing initial determinations but that the hearings backlog was growing because most claims were being denied and that claimants were losing most of their hearings, and how the phone support system still fails to operate effectively a year later in part 7.
Before their investigative reporter moves on to another job in another state, Wisconsin Watch has a detailed news story describing various delays and problems claimants are experiencing with their unemployment claims.
The focus of the piece is how efforts to end federal supplement unemployment benefits — the $300 additional PUC payment, the extension of regular unemployment eligibility through PEUC benefits, and the availability of PUA benefits for those not eligible for regular unemployment benefits — are misguided and counter-factual.
Before that story is discussed, however, the current context of what is happening with the state’s economy needs to be described. As usual, Jake has the lowdown on the June 2021 jobs numbers, which reveal that the federal unemployment benefits are NOT discouraging work at all.
That’s especially the case when you realize that most of those sectors had their job gains deflated due to seasonal adjustments, which count on a certain amount of people joining the work force and getting hired in June. But we went well above that amount in June 2021.
Wisconsin June 2021 Total jobs Seasonally-adjusted +10,700 Non-seasonally adjusted +44,700
Private jobs Seasonally-adjusted +8,400 Non-seasonally adjusted +54,000
Labor Force Seasonally-adjusted +10,000 Non-seasonally adjusted +69,800
Even the sectors that “lost” jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis in Wisconsin were adding workers in reality. This includes construction (+8,100 NSA), manufacturing of non-durable goods (+2,000 NSA), health care and social assistance (+2,400 NSA), and arts/entertainment/recreation (+4,400 NSA).
Economics data as reported by Menzie Chin backs up what Jake is finding. For Chin: “This measure indicates that Wisconsin economic activity growth peaked the week ending May 1st and is still at an extraordinarily high rate in the week ending June 26th.” Economic activity at an extraordinarily high rate, indeed.
But, this economic boom has been incredibly uneven and has yet to lead to the kind of hiring boom last seen in the late 1990s, when companies were willing to hire and train new employees. Today, an older worker who lost her steady job when the pandemic started cannot now find employment and jobs suitable to her physical constraints:
entering her criteria into work search only returns listings for jobs she can’t perform, including physically demanding warehouse and delivery work and positions for nurses or other professions that require licenses that she lacks.
And, the problems with how the Department responded to the pandemic and delayed claims-processing or made mistakes with those claims have had disastrous consequences for those who lost work and needed immediate unemployment assistance.
As the Department of Workforce Development struggled to process claims last year, Miller waited 11 weeks for her first unemployment check. That forced her to spend down her savings and tap into Social Security five years before she preferred — permanently reducing her monthly payment from the federal retirement program.
Likewise, another claimant saw his benefits halted when he followed mistaken advice about reporting self-employment (see the unemployment primer — search for self-employment — for what and why you need to report self-employment).
David’s work search challenge: He can’t find a job matching his education and experience. So David started a business from his garage that makes cutting boards and other light wood products.
He does not expect to profit for at least a year, so he called DWD early to ensure that launching a business would not jeopardize his unemployment compensation. DWD told him that checking the “self-employed” box on his claim and answering a few questions should suffice, he recalled.
But following those directions instantly froze David’s unemployment benefits. After David peppered DWD with calls, he said, someone finally advised him to stop checking the “self-employed” box since he wasn’t making money. It had automatically triggered a review of his claim.
“There were no instructions on the website and they never (previously) told me anything like this,” David said.
Still another claimant simply had to wait and wait until the Department properly processes his claim and then his unemployment benefits payment.
Unlike most states, Wisconsin bars workers on federal disability from collecting regular unemployment aid, and DWD initially extended that ban to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance before reversing course last summer. Baukin has spent a year seeking that compensation.
In May 2021, a state administrative judge finally ruled in his favor, but Baukin says it took over a month to see the aid; he was told that DWD had not loaded the judge’s notes into its antiquated computer system, prolonging the wait. Out of frustration, he stopped checking his online portal with the department, so it took two weeks to realize he’d been paid.
“(DWD) should have sensitivity training that should be mandated — so they know how to service and assist someone with a cognitive disability,” Baukin said.
Another claimant is also waiting to be paid benefits that should have been issued months ago.
His federal disability status torpedoed his regular claim, and he lost out on PUA after being told that he failed to submit his pay stubs fast enough. He is appealing that decision but sold his two trucks to pay bills as he waited. The 1998 Chevy Tahoe and 2002 Dodge Ram pickup — “a beater with a heater” — netted about $800 together.
Unfortunately, he is still waiting for his unemployment hearing.
These stories reveal the crux of the current problems with unemployment claims in Wisconsin: while claimants pay the price for processing delays, there are no consequences to the Department for making claim-filing mistakes.
A recent case that came my way exemplifies this problem. The claimant, a road construction worker, is employed seasonally, since road construction cannot occur during the winter months when the ground is frozen. So, last December (indeed, the last week of December) 2020, he was laid off and filed a claim for unemployment benefits. Then nothing happened. Not until March 2021 was an initial determination issued, denying his December 2020 initial claim because of an alleged quit that occurred in September 2019 when working for a prior employer. Huh?
Even more confusing, the determination itself states that there is no factual basis for this decision:
The employee was contacted and stated that he is currently still employed with the employer. The employer was contacted but failed to respond. Decision was based on available information.
As stated here, the available information was that he was employed. But, the Department concluded for unknown reasons that he was unemployed in September 2019 and that this separation (without explanation) meant he could not collect unemployment benefits in 2021, two years later.
Note: Because this disqualification predates the unemployment claim by more than two years, it showcases how ancient issues can still lead to a disqualification. The claimant’s current benefit year is from 01/03/2021 thru 01/01/2022, and so his previous benefit year was likely from 1/1/2020 thru 1/2/2021. Accordingly, his base period for his earnings for his previous benefit year likely consists of his 2019 earnings. So, this made-up benefit year separation can still matter for an unemployment claim filed two years later. For more information on benefit years and monetary eligibility, see the discussion of monetary eligibility in the unemployment primer.
Not until last week — July 13th — was there a hearing, and both employer and employee testified that the employee was working in September 2019 and that there was no job separation whatsoever. So, the administrative law judge issued a decision a few days later reversing the initial determination, finding that the claimant is not disqualified. Still, given current processing backlogs, this employee will probably not see his unemployment benefits until September 2021, nine months after he first filed his unemployment and five months after he went back to work.
Claimants who contact me keep thinking they have done something wrong. They likely have not done anything wrong, I tell them. Being confused and not understanding an incredibly complicated and opaque claim-filing process is not a mistake at all. And, being the victim of an inane denial is certainly not the fault of any claimant.
People are still struggling with unemployment benefits because the state agency is not processing claims correctly. Things could be different. There could be directions about how to use the portal, guidance about how to file an unemployment claim (like what Massachusetts offers), or a handbook that details both the claim-filing questions asked of claimants and how those questions should be answered (what Connecticut offers). Instead, Wisconsin hides basic information and offers no instructions to claimants. So, neither staff nor claimants understand what exactly is going on. That is the basic reality right now.
Note: 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, 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, and in part 6 how a December 2020 push had cleared some of the back log with issuing initial determinations but that the hearings backlog was growing because most claims were being denied and that claimants were losing most of their hearings.
The story today is not much better. One year later, the unemployment system remains designed to not actually work and claimants cannot actually get answers to their questions.
Yesterday, I decided to follow up on a specific issue: the status of an objection letter I filed on behalf of a client’s PUA weekly benefit calculation. The issue is that his weekly benefit rate is based on four quarters of income in which he was not working that much. An alternate base period that includes income from the first quarter of 2020 would substantially raise his weekly benefit rate, from $189 to probably over $300 per week. In light of Wisconsin’s partial wage formula, that higher weekly benefit rate would mean he would have many more works despite part-time work in which he would qualify for some unemployment benefits and hence also the additional PUC and LWA payments made available during the pandemic.
So, yesterday on July 8th, I started calling. I first called the number on the back of the initial determination.
Note: For the first round of phone calls to the regular help line (calls one thru four), I was on hold each time from 5 to 10 minutes. For the second round of calls to the PUA help line (calls five thru seven), I was on hold each time from 15 to 25 minutes.
In each call, I first identified myself as a representative of my client calling on his behalf about the status of an objection to an initial determination for which I had the number. I identified the client by name and provided his social security number. If I had the opportunity, I also indicated that an information release was on file (besides previous copies, I filed an information release with my May 25th objection letter).
I dialed 414-435-7069. After identifying myself and the client by social security number, I was placed on hold and transferred back to the general waiting queue.
After identifying myself and the client by social security number, I was disconnected.
I dialed 414-435-7069. After identifying myself and the client by social security number, the support staffer asked if I was his attorney. I answered yes. She said she could help me but would need to place me on hold for a second. I was then placed on hold and transferred back to the general waiting queue.
After identifying myself and the client by social security number, the staffer looked up and found the information release that was on file. But, she said, she still needed to verify my identity. After being on hold so that she could talk to a mentor or supervisor, she returned and smartly queried me about various facts from the case documents that only I would know from representing my client (rather than just general information that could be gleaned from the Internet, like address and birthday information). After my own identity was verified, she said she would put a note in the file indicating that I was a legitimate representative of my client when discussing his case.
Note: This verification issue is only a one-way requirement. Department staffers occasionally contact me about my clients’ cases to discuss issues related to those cases. None of this verification is needed then. So, a call to my number is presumed to get me, but a call from my phone number to the Department needs to be verified.
The staffer then explained that the initial determination involved PUA benefits and so I had to call the PUA support line at 608-318-7100. Because she had no access to PUA records, there was nothing she could do.
I explained that the number on the form is NOT the PUA 608 support number but the general 414 number, so that is why I had called the 414 number. I asked, since I only needed information about the status of the objection, if the staffer could look up the initial determination to see if there were any notes or updates concerning it. She did so, and found that a staffer had phoned my client on May 27th (two days after I filed my objection) and left a message asking him to file weekly certifications for weeks in March 2020.
I explained that such a request made no sense (and would defeat the whole purpose of the objection) since he was still being paid by his previous employer for those weeks and that his pandemic job loss did not start until after the week ending 4/18/2020, as stated in my objection letter. The staffer said she would make a note of that issue as well, and I said I would try the 608 number to get additional information concerning this PUA issue.
I dialed 608-318-7100. After identifying myself and the client by social security number, I was disconnected.
I dialed 608-318-7100. After identifying myself and the client by social security number, the staffer refused to look up the information release in the system or the note that had been entered into the system concerning me for this particular claimant. Instead, the staffer insisted I provide all the claimant’s details. When I could not provide my client’s birth date (since I did not have that info on hand), the staffer refused to do anything related to the claimant.
Note: The news about numerous unemployment fraud scams is because hacking rings are using credit data stolen from credit reporting agencies Experian and Equifaxto spoof claimant identities. The information available to these hacker gangsters includes social security numbers, birth dates, drivers’ license numbers, address info, and all other financial information that credit reporting agencies have. Wisconsin has seen a fair number of fraudulent unemployment claims using this stolen data, but the amounts in question pale in comparison to what has happened in other states with easier claim-filing systems. Still, in light of the stolen information, anything on those reports should NOT be relied on to verify a person’s identity.
I dialed 608-318-7100. After identifying myself and the client by social security number, the staffer found the note created by the staffer from the fourth call. This new staffer then went to look up the initial determination for which I had filed an objection. Unfortunately, her network connection was too slow. After waiting several minutes, she said she would put me on hold while she waited for the document to load. The hold, however, led to the phone call being disconnected.
So, seven calls on July 8th over nearly an hour and half did NOT get me the information I needed — the status of the objection I filed on May 25th of 2021. And, basic rights claimants have to a representative during these phone calls and these inquiries is being ignored.
After each hang up, no staffer called me back to continue the conversation.
And, the actual number listed on the form to call was NOT the actual number I should call. Really? How can something like that still be happening?
Finally, keep in mind that I know what I am doing, that I speak the unemployment lingo, and I can call out ambiguities in the advice right away (like the request to file weekly certifications described above). My clients tell me of phone conversations that go no where, of information being told them that actually makes no sense at all in light of what is happening with their claim, or information that is downright misleading.
One client just told me that her claim is being denied because she refused to return a phone call from an adjudicator. But, no new initial determination denying her claim has been issued. And, the client returned the phone call and left a message (the only thing you can do when calling an adjudicator) explaining that the adjudicator should call me. I too left a message with that adjudicator to call me. There was no return phone call from the adjudicator.
What probably has actually happened is that the “investigation” is on hold, as the adjudicator turned to other cases on his or her docket. The reason for this “investigation” is unknown, however.
Note: This client partially won a 30 March 2021 appeal tribunal decision concerning her employer closing because of the pandemic. But, the administrative law judge failed to apply UIPL No. 16-20 Change 5 (25 Feb. 2021) for when the claimant partially returned to work when the employer re-opened, seeNew PUA benefit options (30 April 2021), so a petition for Commission review was filed after a reconsideration letter to the administrative law judge was ignored. Despite the partial win, this claimant has yet to be paid any PUA benefits.
I understand that staffers are trying their best. The sub-dividing of tasks and responsibilities and the hiring of third-party companies means that these staffers have limited windows within which to view the claims and even less of an ability to fix problems. So, the problems I encountered yesterday (outside of the staffers hanging up on me) are not tied to how any one staffer is doing his or her job. Rather, the problems are because of how the support system is designed to keep staffers in boxes that limit what they can do and what they can see.
Note: In this light, the staffer on the fourth call should be commended for doing her job both correctly, smartly, and with compassion. She even noted that problem with the wrong phone number on the form and lamented that there was nothing she could do but was happy if I could communicate the problem to folks who actually could address the issue.
That design needs to change. Far too many claimants are still struggling with basic eligibility issues that are now a year or more old because they still cannot get straight answers from the Department.