Phone calls to unemployment one year later
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.
A year ago, the unemployment phone support system melted down in the face of thousands of claimants who were looking for answers to all of their unemployment-related questions.
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 Equifax to 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, see New 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.