The US Dep’t of Labor has announced the beginning of an effort to modernize unemployment claim-filing to make the process both more equitable and less susceptible to fraud.
This effort is centered around the creation of “tiger” teams that are “composed of experts across many disciplines including fraud specialists, equity and customer service experience specialists, UI program specialists, behavioral insights specialists, business intelligence analysts, computer systems engineers/architects and project managers.” These teams will not only work on hardening a state’s claim-filing system from on-line attacks but also in the creation of modular systems that can be deployed for making claim-filing both easier to use and manage.
Wisconsin is one of six states to receive initial funding and support for these tiger team reviews (the other states are Colorado, Washington State, Kansas, Virginia and Nevada).
This funding is a BIG deal. The Secretary’s office is to be congratulated for securing this funding and the arrival of a Tiger team in Wisconsin, as it represents the first major push to revamp the claim-filing process in this state.
Obviously, neither claimants nor employers will see any immediate changes with this tiger team. But, one of the major roadblocks for reform have been the upper-level staffers decrying any changes as impossible in light of current unemployment law and regulations. Those objections lack a factual or legal basis. See, for instance, how able and available questions have become more illegal over the last 18 months in the name of simplifying claim-filing requirements.
So, this tiger team represents for the first time a group of experts who can call out the bad advice and guidance being offered from the upper-level managers inside the Department. And, there certainly is a need to identifying some of the fundamental problems that have taken root in Wisconsin.
This report finds that Michigan did exceptionally well during the pandemic through temporary measures created for dealing with the pandemic but that long-term, state-based problems continue to make regular unemployment claims in that state insufficient and inaccessible.
The comparable data on Wisconsin is NOT good, especially when considering that the folks in Michigan under-reported many of the key problems in Wisconsin. In regards to regular unemployment claim-filing access, Wisconsin scored 318.5 out of 900 possible points, a number that puts Wisconsin towards the bottom in the mid-west (as well as nationally).
New Mexico 493.0
North Dakota 463.0
South Dakota 404.0
And, the Covid-19 response in Wisconsin is probably given too much credit, as the executive orders during the pandemic were, unlike what happened in other states, quite limited and left numerous claim-filing requirements in place (like job registration and attending RESEA training) while also NOT creating the kind of blanket experience-rating waiver that occurred in other states like Michigan and North Carolina.
Even with this inflated score including an additional 200 (out of a possible 500) points for the state’s Covid-19 response, Wisconsin still ends near the bottom of all the states.
In 2007, a weekly certification for regular unemployment benefits consisted of 11 questions. Since then, the only major legal change in unemployment law that would affect claim-filing requirements was the increase in weekly job searches from two to four. Yet, now a weekly certification requires answering 120+ questions. As I wrote previously:
Today, filing an unemployment claim is the equivalent of filing a full 1040 tax return but without any instructions or advice available about how to actually provide all of the required information.
Putting in the work to see what is going on reveals just how broken the claims-filing process truly is. The Department should know better but is pretending that a few creases and some folds there will smooth over all the problems and somehow transport the state back to what existed in 2007.
Unemployment was completely undone in the 2010s in this state, and pretending otherwise provides a monumental dis-service to all involved.
So, bringing tiger teams to Wisconsin to evaluate fully and revamp the claim-filing process is an essential and welcome step. Kudos again to the Secretary’s office for getting Wisconsin into this program.
Insofar as state UC law provides for claims to be backdated, the state must continue to take new applications for MEUC as provided in their state law for late filing of claims after the date of termination or expiration (whichever comes first).
While not addressed so far in federal guidance, it seems that a claimant, who suddenly becomes eligible for possible MEUC benefits after Sept. 4th, should have the option of applying for and receiving MEUC benefits. The original post follows.
MEUC (Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation) benefits have been over-shadowed by PUA, PEUC, and PUC benefits. But, many self-employed individuals who also engage in regular wage work may be eligible for this benefit that originated with the Continued Assistance Act.
MEUC benefits pay an additional $100 per week from the week ending 1/2/2021 thru the week ending 9/4/2021. You are eligible for MEUC benefits if:
you receive regular unemployment benefits or PEUC benefits (receiving PUA benefits would mean that you have insufficient wage earnings from covered employment to establish a benefit year and so you are receiving those PUA benefits in large part based on your self-employment income), and
you have $5000 in self-employment earnings in either 2019 or 2020.
The Department has created a FAQ for MEUC benefits. The problem is that the application for MEUC benefits is not available. Apparently, the application only becomes available to claimants on the portal when the Department concludes they might be eligible for MEUC benefits.
The Department’s own data indicates that very few MEUC applications have been filed and very little in MEUC benefits have been paid out. From the amount paid and the number of applications and the set amount of MEUC benefits at $100 per week, I can estimate the number of successful MEUC applications each week (presuming that prior approved applications continue to be paid).
From this data, out of 264 applications (i.e., initial MEUC claims) for MEUC benefits, around 64 claimants have been successful, an approval rate of only 24.25%. Obviously, a denial of MEUC eligibility can be appealed and probably should be.
But, those who might be eligible for MEUC benefits need to hurry. After September 4th, initial claims for MEUC benefits will no longer be possible. So, if you have self-employment income and regular wage work that should make you eligible for regular unemployment benefits or the PEUC extension,then you should apply for MEUC benefits.
Unfortunately, getting that MEUC application is difficult. You need to call a claims specialists at 414-435-7069 and ask to file a MEUC initial claim.
Call every few days with this same request until you get to file a MEUC initial claim. If the staffer does not know what you are talking about, then call again to connect with another staff. Repeat until you get to file a MEUC initial claim. Seethis post about my own experience with phone support.
Finally, I have already seen several self-employed individuals who are mistakenly reporting their self-employment income as regular wages on their weekly certifications. When receiving regular unemployment benefits, self-employment income and hours are reported separately from regular wage work. Hours spent in self-employment, if 16 or more hours in a week, will automatically disqualify you completely from receiving any unemployment benefits that week. But, self-employment income does NOT count at all against your weekly benefit rate (Wisconsin may be the only state that does NOT offset self-employment income from weekly benefits). As stated in the employers’ handbook:
Note: When receiving PUA benefits, self-employment income is handled in completely opposite manner. This is one reason why PUA benefits are only available when not eligible at all for regular unemployment benefits.
So, people who list their self-employment income as regular wages are seeing that self-employment income mistakenly offset against their weekly benefit rate. And, because of that mistaken treatment, the Department cannot see that they might be eligible for MEUC benefits because they have self-employment income.
These folks need to call a claims specialist as well to correct their weekly certifications. Before making that call/calls, list out the new hours and earnings that need to entered for each weekly certification that needs to be corrected.
UPDATE (18 Sept. 2021): Federal guidance, UIPL No. 16-20 Change 6 (3 Sept. 2021) at 11, has been issued which allows claimants to file PUA initial claims until 30 days after the program’s expiration — i.e., 4 October 2021.
This federal guidance also spells out that:
States must notify every individual who had previously filed a PUA claim at any time while the PUA program was in effect and was denied for any week because they were not unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work for one of the COVID-19 related reasons available at the time. Below are some examples of who is included in this population.
o If the individual selected “none of the above” or skipped selecting a COVID-19 related reason and was denied only for this reason, they are included in this population.
o If a state offered a free-form text box and, upon evaluation against the COVID-19 related reasons available at the time, the state determined that the individual was not unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work for one of the listed reasons, thus denying them – then the individual is included in this population.
o If an individual was denied for a reason other than failure to self-certify to a COVID-19 related reason(s), they are not included in this population (e.g., if the individual was denied because they were eligible for regular UC instead, they are not included in this population).
PUA claims previously denied. In addition, states MUST re-assess and likely approve PUA claims that were previously denied for reasons now covered.
Processing certifications returned from previously denied PUA weeks. An individual must be found eligible for a previous week if they: (1) were previously denied for a week only because they did not self-certify to one or more of the COVID-19 related reason(s) available at the time; (2) upon receiving notification of the expanded eligibility list of COVID-19 related reasons, self-certified that they were unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work due to one or more of the COVID-19 related reasons; and (3) meet all other eligibility requirements for the program.
UIPL No. 16-20 Change 6 at 6. This mandate applies to PUA claims denied after an appeal tribunal decision and even a decision by the Labor and Industry Review Commission. Id. at 7.
Back-dating of claims. Good cause for back-dating a PUA initial claim or weekly certification is unnecessary. UIPL No. 16-20 Change 6 at 7.
Back-dating of PUA claims is possible well after October 2021 if possible eligibility for PUA is not established until later. Because of claims-processing delays (far too many Wisconsin claimants are still waiting for weekly certifications dating back to March 2020 to be paid), claimants may not have a definitive answer about their eligibility for regular unemployment benefits until well after October 4th of 2021:
if they: (1) filed a regular UC claim prior to the end of the 30-day required period for accepting new PUA applications after the date of state termination or program expiration (whichever comes first) and (2) are found ineligible for regular UC (or PEUC or EB) after the end of the 30-day required period. However, such an individual must file the PUA claim within 21 days of the determination of ineligibility for regular UC. The state must notify affected individuals of this PUA filing deadline, which may be done as part of the notification that their UC (or PEUC or EB) claim was denied or in a separate notification.
Which state to file a PUA initial claim? Claimants should file their PUA initial claim in the state where they suffered their pandemic-related job loss. UIPL No. 16-20 Change 6 at 8.
PUA documentation requirements. The documentation requirements instituted by the Continued Assistance Act remain in place. But, for claimants filing a second PUA initial claim (for instance, they caught Covid-19 in the summer of 2021 after returning to work earlier in the year), “the state must obtain such documentation substantiating employment or self-employment (or the planned commencement of such) prior to releasing payment on the new claim.” UIPL No. 16-20 Change 6 at 10.
A complete description of all the pandemic-related job loss reasons that qualify for PUA benefits are listed in attachment I to this federal guidance. If you need any assistance or guidance concerning these pandemic job-loss reasons, read this description. The original post follows.
Given the delays in getting cases heard (for the week ending 7/31/2021, 4,732 hearings were scheduled, but the number of hearings still waiting to be scheduled stood at 13,151, up from 12,780 as of 5/1/2021 despite over 4000 hearings be scheduled each week), hundreds if not thousands of claimants will not find out about their eligibility for regular unemployment benefits or their PUA eligibility until well after September 4th, when PUA benefits expire. After that date, filing an initial claim for PUA benefits will likely NOT be possible. So, claimants need to consider filing an initial claim for PUA benefits while they still can.
Note: While the Labor and Industry Review Commission is correcting many of the bad decisions by the Department, the sheer number of bad decisions has led to a crushing caseload at the Commission. Simple errors by appeal tribunals concerning wrong dates or the failure to apply federal guidance, for example, are not being corrected. And so, appeals to the Commission are needed. The result is that an appeal filed today may take a year to be decided by the Commission.
Furthermore, the Department is currently re-investigating all paid claims. Should the Department conclude that you were not eligible for the unemployment benefits paid to you, you will likely face an over-payment of at least $20,000 when all the additional PUC and LWA benefits are added up (and amounts up to $40,000 or more are possible). Without the option of possibly re-qualifying for PUA benefits, those amounts will be owed without any ability to collect under the program specifically designed to help those who do not normally qualify for regular unemployment benefits — PUA benefits.
Wisconsin: where initial claims go to die
Very few initial PUA claims in Wisconsin — just one out of four — have led to the payment of PUA benefits. Here is how Wisconsin compares to its neighbors and other key states in regards to PUA claims and weekly benefits paid.
ST Ini. Claims First Paymts Percent Weeks Comp.
WI 177,745 43,838 24.66% 1,373,636
IA 98,863 38,926 39.37% 1,089,524
IL 651,856 274,512 42.11% 14,443,527
IN 691,499 299,076 43.25% 7,233,059
MA 984,279 631,681 64.18% 17,709,893
MI 1,782,454 1,001,341 56.18% 29,078,945
MN (State's initial claim data is n/a) 3,081,476
NC 502,777 268,930 53.49% 8,396,506
NJ 800,024 593,233 74.15% 20,375,078
OR 346,410 115,293 33.28% 4,124,322
PA 2,402,228 1,297,421 54.01% 39,283,873
Of these states, Wisconsin has by far the lowest percentage of PUA initial claims leading to the payment of benefits. As a consequence, very few PUA weekly certifications in Wisconsin are leading to the payment of PUA benefits. The weeks compensated in Wisconsin are significantly lower than all other states but Iowa, and Iowa is only lower than Wisconsin because the PUA initial claims filed in Iowa are 56% of the already low number of PUA initial claims filed in Wisconsin.
Outside of Iowa (in general a rural state), these other states are seeing both much higher numbers of PUA initial claims being filed and a much higher percentage of those PUA initial claims being approved.
Data for initial claims for regular unemployment benefits in Wisconsin is not much better. Here is the percentage of initial claims for regular unemployment benefits that have been paid since the pandemic started in March 2020.
ST Ini. Claims First Paymts Percent
WI 1,503,897 415,110 27.60%
AR 529,685 209,554 39.56%
CO 1,508,834 646,831 42.87%
IA 668,514 344,746 51.57%
IL 4,051,684 1,513,292 37.35%
IN 2,128,074 663,556 31.18%
MN (State's initial claim data is n/a)
MI 2,594,914 1,386,616 53.44%
NC 1,903,903 788,429 41.41%
NJ 2,297,069 902,070 39.27%
OR 914,583 497,657 54.41%
PA 3,230,852 1,500,655 46.45%
Again, Wisconsin has the lowest percentage of initial claims for regular unemployment benefits being paid. Prior to the pandemic, initial claims for regular unemployment benefits were being paid at a 38.81% clip, over 10% higher than what is happening since the pandemic started. Only Indiana, another state that like Wisconsin has made claim-filing extremely difficult, is the percentage of initial claims for regular unemployment being paid under 32%.
I have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or am experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and am seeking a medical diagnosis.
A member of my household has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
I am providing care for a family member or a member of my household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
A child or other person in my household for which I am the primary caregiver is unable to attend school or another facility that is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency and such school or facility care is required for me to work.
I am unable to reach my place of employment because of a quarantine imposed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
I am unable to reach my place of employment because I have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19.
I was scheduled to commence employment and do not have a job or am unable to reach the job as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
I have become the breadwinner or major support for my household because the head of the household has died as a direct result of COVID-19.
I quit my job as a direct result of COVID-19.
My place of employment is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
I am self-employed (including an independent contractor and gig worker) and experienced a significant reduction of my customary or usual services because of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
I was denied continued unemployment benefits because I refused to return to work or accept an offer of work at a worksite that, in either instance, is not in compliance with local, state, or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19. This includes but is not limited to, those related to facial mask wearing, physical distancing measures, or the provision of personal protective equipment consistent with public health guidelines.
I provide services to an educational institution or educational service agency and am unemployed or partially unemployed because of volatility in the work schedule that is directly caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency. This includes, but is not limited to, changes in schedules and partial closures.
I am an employee and my hours have been reduced or I was laid off as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
If one of these pandemic job-loss reasons applies to you, then a backup PUA initial claim is possible.
If none of these pandemic job-loss reasons apply to you, then you probably do NOT qualify for PUA benefits and a backup PUA initial claim would be pointless.
In selecting one or more reasons, there should be little to no ambiguity or question for why that reason applies to you. If you need to explain the reason selected, then it probably does NOT apply. For example:
The restaurant either closed to the public or it did not close (note, a dining room closed to the public is closed, even if the restaurant still serves take-out customers).
A medical provider wanting you quarantined — period — is needed for the quarantine reason. Deciding to quarantine yourself out of your own personal health concerns does not count, unless you are a medical provider yourself.
There must be an actual and significant reduction in work hours tied to Covid-19. If you normally worked around 20 hours a week, and you worked 18 hours a week here and there but 21 and 22 hours on other weeks, there does not seem to be an actual reduction in work hours tied to the pandemic even if you are making less money.
You must be caring for someone in your household or sick yourself from Covid-19 or waiting on a test result for Covid-19. Just being sick and thinking the illness is related to Covid-19 is not enough.
In other words, select the reason or reasons that apply. You should not need to provide any kind of elaboration. And, if you only check the box for “none of the above,” then the Department will automatically deny your PUA initial claim because you have not identified a valid reason for granting you PUA benefits.
Identify the start date for the backup PUA initial claim
The second key piece of information you need is the date of your pandemic-related job loss. From the reasons listed above, identify the specific date that the event occurred.
If multiple reasons apply on different dates, then you will need to file separate initial PUA claims for each separate date.
If there are multiple reasons that apply for the same date, then select all of those reasons for the date. For instance, if your workplace closed on the same day that the childcare provider closed, then both the business closure reason and the primary caregiver because of closed childcare reason apply, and both should be selected. As long as the reasons occur in the same calendar week, they will apply for the same PUA initial claim.
How to file a backup PUA initial claim
First, try to file this new/backup PUA claim on the portal. Once you login to the portal, be careful where you click.
The Department has instituted a set of screening questions as well. Depending on how you answer these questions, you may end up in two options that prevent you from filing a new/backup PUA initial claim.
In option one, you want to avoid having a pending initial claim for regular unemployment benefits that keeps you from filing a PUA initial claim, especially since the Department is unlikely to have that initial claim for regular unemployment resolved before September 4th.
So, if you end up with this option, you need to select “yes” for being denied regular unemployment insurance benefits even if the regular UI initial claim is still pending (since only 27% are being paid, your initial claim for regular unemployment benefits will likely be denied).
For option two, make sure the pandemic-related reasons for your PUA initial claim have changed from what you previously filed. A second reason in addition to the original reason is a legally sufficient change.
Finally, if manage to get through this screening process, here is what the on-line PUA initial claim form looks like.
If the on-line/portal option is not available, call the PUA support line at 608-318-7100 to see if you can file the PUA initial claims with a staffer. The staffer will likely take you through the same set of screening questions listed above.
Second, if the staffer refuses to take your initial claim over the phone, fill out the new PUA form and mail it and supporting documents to:
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Program PO Box 7905 Madison WI 53707
Make sure to note the date you mail in this application and to keep copies of whatever you send in or submit.
As usual, look for paper copies in the mail about any decisions. Messages on the portal are generally NOT helpful.
A backup PUA claim only applies to those currently receiving regular unemployment benefits or PEUC benefits, those who have had their PUA initial claim denied, or those whose initial PUA claim has yet to be approved.
Those currently receiving PUA benefits should probably NOT file a backup PUA claim.
Those whose PUA claims were denied, and those denials are currently in litigation (either with a hearing before an administrative law judge or an appeal before the Labor and Industry Review Commission) should consider filing a backup PUA claim on the chance that they lose their current case.
Those who filed late appeals for PUA claims being denied or who did not appeal those denials should consider filing a backup PUA initial claim if the original PUA initial claim cannot be revived. See the discussion of late appeals in the unemployment primer and the discussion of bad advice allowing late appeals or withdrawn appeals to be re-activated in delays, part 2 about how to revive these kinds of claims. If you can revive your claim in the next few weeks, do NOT file a backup PUA initial claim.
For claimants receiving PEUC benefits who do not have a pandemic-related job loss (see above), then a backup PUA claim is not an option. You cannot extend your benefits past the week ending 9/4/2021 with PUA benefits. Any benefits paid after Sept. 4th will depend on whether you can establish a new benefit year based your prior wage earnings. For what is a benefit year, see the discussion of benefit year eligibility in the unemployment primer.
As previously described, the premature end for PEUC benefits and other federal supplements like PUC and PUA will have problematic economic consequences for everyone.
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.
Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit is limited to one monthly service discount and one device discount per household.
A household is eligible if a member of the household meets one of the following criteria:
Has an income that is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participates in certain assistance programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid, or Lifeline;
Approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision in the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school year;
Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
Experienced a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since February 29, 2020 and the household had a total income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers; or
Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program.
As of 12 May 2021, eligible households can enroll in the program to receive a monthly discount off the cost of broadband service from an approved provider. Eligible households can enroll through the approved provider or by filing an application at this link.
Anyone in Wisconsin who might be eligible for this assistance should apply.
Given that unemployment claims-filing is on-line only unless you indicate in a phone call to the unemployment support center that “I have disabilities that make on-line filing difficult and am requesting assistance” (an option not available to those who converse on the phone), the broadband assistance offered here is essential.
The problem with this new portal is that basic functionality and information remains unchanged. All that has happened is that the Department has replaced a few menu commands with some new icons. The confusing messages about claim status, the lack of access to the legal documents that decide claim status like benefit year calculations remain, and the multiple layers and clicks to find key information and documents that might or might not be available are still present. Furthermore, there is still no instruction or guidance from the Department about how to navigate the portal to accomplish vital tasks, like appealing an initial determination.
One of the first problems claimants will notice is that not all commands/tools are available to all claimants. For instance, the Department is advertising how claimants can now upload documents. But, that feature is only available to certain claimants when the Department itself decides that those claimants need that ability. The portal for the PUA claimant shown below lacks the document upload tool.
Looking for issues and determinations leads to a confusing and incomplete presentation in which only the current issues and determinations are listed. Clicking on the Determinations button
takes claimants to a Determinations and Appeals page:
This listing, however, only provides current determinations and appeals. Determinations that have NOT been appealed but which are still denying benefits are NOT listed here.
The issue listed at the top for each of these determinations, moreover, do NOT at all describe the initial determinations themselves.
Furthermore, there may be other determinations for which no initial determination was issued. Click on View Determinations History to see what other determinations might be connected to you.
Here, more determinations connected to you may appear:
In this screenshot, there are now four determinations rather than just the two that have been appealed.
The one for the week 26/2019 indicates that a quit in 2019 is NOT disqualifying because the claimant subsequently earned enough wages to satisfy any disqualification connected to that quit. There is no initial determination connected to this listing. And, there are two for week 15/2020: one disqualifying the claimant issued on 10/28/2020 (which per the Determinations screen above we can see that the claimant has appealed) and another issued on 7/24/2020 finding the claimant eligible for PUA benefits. Finally, there is a determination for week 31/2020 that was issued on 12/31/2020 finding that the claimant quit a job and so is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits (per the Determinations screen above, we can see that this determination also was appealed).
These are NOT all the documents available to this claimant, however. The Document History option detailed below remains the only viable option for seeing all the documents connected to an unemployment claim.
The appeals option is problematic as well. Selecting Appeals
will only show the determinations that can still be appealed. Determinations for which an appeal would be late are NOT listed.
To find an appeal online for an older initial determination, claimants have to click on the Find Determination button, enter the number of the initial determination they want to appeal, and then click on still another Find Determination button.
The initial determination number is the number in the upper left corner of initial determination.
Since most claimants do not track these initial determination numbers, this requirement for an initial determination number for finding an old initial determination creates a major roadblock for filing any late appeals.
Finally, the claim status messages remain as confusing as ever. These messages are generated when a Department staffer does anything involving an unemployment claim. They do NOT reflect the actual legal status of the claim.
Claimants should continue to ignore these messages because they often mean nothing and can actually be misleading.
So, the portal’s usefulness remains limited to two tasks: a claimant’s document history and a claimant’s benefit payment history. Here is how those tasks work with the new portal.
Your Document History will list some of the important documents connected to your claim, and it provides a central location for finding those documents on your portal.
To get to your Document History, follow these steps.
1. Click on the Menu button on the upper-right corner of the screen.
2. After clicking on Menu, you will see a screen similar to the following:
In contrast to the document history process, claimants’ access to their benefit payment history has been improved.
1. Click on the Print Benefit Statements icon.
2. The following screen is presented to you.
3. Make sure the checkbox By choosing to create a formal summary, I acknowledge that it will include personal infromation such as my name and Social Security Number is checked and that Create a PDF document is selected.
The problem with these benefit year printouts is that they are limited to a calendar year going back 12 months from the current date. Because many of the issues now being “decided” are more than a year old, the benefit payment history available here in this PDF fails to include the actual weeks when you first started claiming benefits.
To get those earlier weeks, follow these directions.
1. Click on My UI Summary.
2. At the next screen, click on the More Info link.
3. At the “Benefit Payment History” screen, change the time period to either All Payments or Calendar, where you select the time period for the payments.
4. Your benefit payment history for the time period selected will then appear
5. To save a copy of this screen, take a screen snapshot.
Macintosh computers: Press the CMD and Shift and 3 keys to save the image into a file on your Desktop. Or, press the CMD and Shift and 4 keys to draw a rectangle around the portion of the screen you want to save.
Windows computers: Press Alt and PrtScn keys to save a PNG file of the current window inside your Pictures folder.
Apple iPhones: On older iPhones, press both the Home and Top/Power buttons at the same time to save a PNG picture in your photos library. On newer iPhones that lack a home button, press both the Volume Up and Top/Power buttons at the same time to save a PNG picture in your photos library.
Newer Android phones: Press either the Power and Volume Down buttons at the same time or press and hold the Power button for a few seconds before tapping on the screen. Look for the screenshot in your photos library.
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. Initial claims/applications and telephone hearing packets/instructions almost always have raw social security numbers visible to anyone.
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).
Sending a document securely via Signal — added 12 Aug. 2021
For those documents that have confidential information — initial claims, hearing packets (labeled telephone instructions on the portal) — Signal provides a way.
You first need to set Signal up on an Apple or Android smartphone by linking the Signal app on that smartphone to your phone number. Once set up, you can then use Signal to send secure documents to another Signal user — which I am under my phone number — on your smart phone or your computer: Mac, Windows, and even Linux.
To send a file on your smartphone via Signal, follow these steps.
1. Get the file actual file showing on your screen.
2. Then click on the three dots that appear on the screen or press a finger on the document and hold until the sharing screen appears.
3. A sharing window should appear. Look for and press on the Signal icon or look for an option to send or share via Signal and press on that option.
4. You are then taken to the Signal app where you need to select a recipient and then to press the send button.
5. The file is sent!
With Signal, you can send documents that have your social security number securely to a trusted person, like your legal representative.
The latest rescue package signed into law on 11 March 2021 provides for:
$1,400 per person direct stimulus payments for individuals earning less than $75,000 and for couples earning less than $150,000.
PUA benefits extended 23 more weeks on top of the original 50 weeks (39 under CARES and 11 under Continued Assistance) for a total of 73 weeks until 6 September 2021.
PEUC benefits extended 29 more weeks on top of the original 24 weeks (13 under CARES and 11 under Continued Assistance) for a total of 53 weeks until 6 September 2021.
The additional $300 PUC per week starting on the week ending 1/2/2021 continued for all weeks until 6 September 2021.
Work share programs are extended thru 6 Sept. 2021.
Full federal funding of EB benefits extended thru 6 Sept. 2021.
The federal subsidy for reimbursable employers is increased from 50% to 75% for unemployment weeks beginning after 31 March 2021 until the week ending 9/6/2021.
Full, 100% funding of waived waiting week benefits retroactive to the week ending 1/2/21 (this subsidy was previously 50%) and effective through the week ending 9/6/2021. As the Department persuasively indicated on March 18th to the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, this federal funding means that claimants get an additional $300 PUC payment earlier into their hands as well as one week of regular unemployment benefits being funded by the federal government rather than Wisconsin employers (meaning that Wisconsin employers end up with the first week of benefits paid for by the feds rather than out of their unemployment accounts). At the March 18th meeting of the Advisory Council, labor caucus members pushed for full support of this waiting week waiver, but employer representatives for some reason had to think about whether employers would want to have one week of benefits subsidized or not.
An expanded Child Tax Credit on income tax forms that will provide $300 per month to families with children under 6 and $250 per child 17 and under.
100% coverage of any COBRA premiums for any workers laid off and maintaining health care coverage through COBRA thru 30 Sept. 2021. Details and mechanisms for this coverage are to be determined and will include employer or insurer payments for that coverage on behalf of the former employees.
Expanded subsidies for ACA health coverage that will apply to 2021 and 2022 calendar years. Anyone receiving unemployment benefits in 2021 will be automatically eligible for subsidized ACA health care coverage. The extent of those subsidies are to be determined.
Financial shoring up of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation so as to keep pension payments flowing to millions of retirees.
There are income limits to many of these provisions. But, for nearly all unemployed workers in Wisconsin, those income limits will not be an issue.
Beginning February 2021, there is additional rental assistance (WERA) for those who are facing eviction or are behind in their rent payments.
Here is a link to the state Department of Administration website with contact information for each county. Under the “Want to Apply?” section, click on the highlighted box that says “Your Local Community Action Agency,” which will take you to the WERA page.
In Dane County, these applications are being handled by the Tenant Resource Center. Here are income limits for Dane County, which will vary somewhat for other counties: