Claims and phone calls

Claims have sky-rocketed in the past few weeks, and the Department of Workforce Development has been providing daily updates on these numbers:

Before pandemic claims started

Week 11    2020  2019   ratio
Sunday      746   948   0.8
Monday    1,237  1,376  0.9
Tuesday     809   811   1.0
Wednesday   674   738   0.9
Thursday    710   711   1.0
Friday      985   786   1.3
Saturday    537   217   2.5
Totals    5,698 5,587   1.0

When pandemic claims started

Week 12    2020  2019   ratio 
Sunday    1,499   826   1.8 
Monday    4,392  1,329  3.3
Tuesday   8,603   818   10.5
Wednesday 14,988  725   20.7
Thursday  16,252  703   23.1
Friday    17,094  789   21.7
Saturday   6,514   26   250.5
Totals    69,342 5,216  13.3

Second week of claims

Week 13    2020  2019   ratio
Sunday    10,872  963   11.3
Monday    21,250 1,412  15.0
Tuesday   18,638  918   20.3
Wednesday 19,438  699   27.8
Thursday  19,489  672   29.0
Friday    18,386  748   24.6
Saturday   7,606  228   33.4
Totals   115,679 5,640  20.5

Third week of claims

Week 14    2020  2019   ratio
Sunday    12,136  878   13.8
Monday    24,664 1,248  19.8
Tuesday           859   0.0
Wednesday         642   0.0
Thursday          679   0.0
Friday            709   0.0
Saturday          158   0.0
Totals    36,800 5,173  7.1

Claims for week 11 were nearly identical to what was filed last year. Starting with week 12, however, claims started escalating and took off on Wednesday of that week. Nearly 70,000 claims ended up being filed then.

The trend continued into week 13. Nearly 116,000 initial claims were filed that week, over 20x greater than the claims filed for that same week in 2019.

Note: March and April are typically when initial unemployment claims are at their lowest, as many workers are returning to jobs after seasonal layoffs because of winter.

As evident here, yesterday saw the highest number of claims filed on any day so far, almost 25,000 in one day.

The question for all of us is for how long will this increase in claims continue. The evidence so far is that is that this spike is likely to be ongoing. The Department reports that during week 13 the Department received more than 1.5 million calls.

Despite statements by Department officials, there does NOT appear to be any automated phone system in place for people to file their unemployment claims by phone. The only information so far is how to apply on-line. And, the Department’s FAQ for applying for benefits states only provides this information:

Q: How do I apply?

A: Steps to Apply Online
1. Go to my.unemployment.wisconsin.gov
2. Read and accept Terms and Conditions
3. Create a username and password
4. Logon to access online benefit services
5. Complete your application

Folks are calling into the Department help lines, however, because the on-line system is complicated and difficult to use (an initial claim usually takes an hour to complete and can take several hours and multiple sessions to complete if there are any wrinkles to that claim). This complexity may work well when the system is hardly being used, but complexity gets in the way of a mass need in light of this pandemic.

So, folks are turning to phone lines reserved for assisting claimants with their on-line claims. And, this turn to phone calls is occurring in massive numbers, roughly 15x times than the already record number of initial claims being filed.

The Department’s request for people to use the on-line system does not fix this problem. People are turning to these phone lines because they either lack access to the on-line system in the first place or because they cannot navigate the on-line system despite having access to it.

Note: While closed, public libraries are keeping their wifi on. So, cars in parking lots in rural Wisconsin are now pretty common despite the libraries being closed. We all love our libraries. The Public Service Commission and the Department of Public Instruction have introduced a web-link for finding free wifi hot-spots in Wisconsin.

And, the phone system is also making matters worse [see update below]. Claimants are reporting that the social security number gatekeeper to phone support remains in place. Under this system, claimants are limited to only calling into the Department for help on certain days, depending on whether their social security number ends in an even or odd digit. So, claimants are calling on their wrong day, entering in their social security number, and then being kicked out but not realizing the reason why. So, they call again and again.

In other words, these claims will continue to climb, because there are still more folks trying to file an initial claim than those who have gotten through.

Furthermore, the Wisconsin Policy Forum indicates that the job losses in Wisconsin because of this pandemic are already devastating (25 to 30% unemployment in some counties) and have hit low-wage workers in rural areas of the state the hardest.

Unemployment may well be the only economic engine in this state for the next several months. The Department needs to realize its essential role sooner rather than later.

Update (2 April 2020): My sources within the Department report that the social security number gatekeeper was removed several months ago. So, people are getting disconnected simply because the phone-support system is being crushed with all the calls.

My insiders also report that many of the calls concern ID and password problems with the on-line system. Claimants do not recall their specific ID and password information and cannot get the answers to security questions right. So, they need to call to get on-line access and passwords reset after verifying their identity to staffers.

To handle all of these calls, staffers are now handling phone calls (if not their regular job to begin with) every other work day.

Also, my sources indicate that those who lack on-line access now have the option of filing their claim on the phone with the assistance of a DWD staffer on the phone. The problem right now is getting through on the phone, however.

Update (15 April 2020): The PIN reset issue for people who previously filed for unemployment benefits has been a major problem in many states. The solution for many, like in Wisconsin, requires that the worker contact an agency representative by phone to reset the PIN number, which then contributes to a backlog on the phones as well. Washington state has put in place an easier fix for resetting a workers’ PIN.

Update (17 April 2020): Added a web-link from PSC and DPI for finding free wifi hot-spots.

 

On-line only claim filing

As of 1 September 2017, the Department mandated that all unemployment claims and all weekly claim certifications be filed on-line only.

As noted when the Department mandated in May 2017 that initial unemployment claims had to be filed on-line, federal guidelines indicate that on-line only requirements are problematic.

This new, more expansive mandate from the Department seems to ignore these cautions from federal authorities about maintaining effective options for those with limited on-line access or limited English proficiency. For instance, the Department seems only to be providing assistance for on-line filing, not any actual alternatives to on-line filing.

At the very bottom of this page, a person having trouble with on-line claims finds this advice:

For help using online services or if you are truly unable to go online call 414-438-7713 during business hours.

The general page about unemployment services also indicates that on-line filing is required. For those who want help with their clams, this advice is offered:

For help using online services call 414-438-7713 during business hours:

Monday — Friday 7:45 AM – 4:30 PM

Callers may be asked to call back on a specific day of the week.

Additionally, this same general page also explains just under the notice about reporting fraud that:

DWD is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. If you have a disability and need assistance with this information, please dial 7-1-1 for Wisconsin Relay Service. Please contact the Unemployment Insurance Division at 414-438-7713 to request information in an alternate format, including translated to another language.

In the claimants’ handbook, the advice for those who might have trouble with the on-line system is tucked away under the Filing a Weekly Claim Certification:

Important Points to Remember When Filing a Weekly Claim:

All questions apply to the specific calendar week for which you are claiming. For example, when asked if you quit a job, you are being asked if you quit during the week you are claiming. If you did not quit during that week, answer “NO.”

If you are truly unable to use online services to file your weekly claim, contact a Claims Specialist at 414-438-5395 during business hours. Claims Specialists are available to assist you.

In a FAQ about benefit filing, the Department explains:

The Unemployment Insurance Division is retiring the automated telephone filing system. Workers must now file online. Apply online at https://my.unemployment.wisconsin.gov. For help using online services call 414-438-7713 during business hours.

So, the Department is having claimants call for assistance to make their on-line claim work and not offering any alternatives to the on-line claim process. Moreover, these phone calls are NOT toll-free and can only occur during limited hours.

For those calling with limited English proficiency, my sources indicate that phone-service interpreters will be added to the call to help explain the on-line filing requirements to claimants. Those with limited access to the Internet — which is most of Wisconsin, as high-speed broadband is still not available to most homes in rural Wisconsin — are being told to file at their local libraries. Indeed, the Department has indicated on numerous occasions to ask librarians for assistance when filing their unemployment claims.

Finally, there are some doubts about the adequacy of the Spanish version of the on-line filing system for Spanish-speaking claimants.

NOTE: There is still no on-line option for Hmong-speaking claimants.

The terms of use for the on-line system declares:

DISCLAIMER FOR TRANSLATION

The Google™ translation feature is provided for informational purposes only. Please be advised that the Department of Workforce Development is unable to guarantee the accuracy of this translation service and is therefore not liable for any inaccurate information resulting from the translation application tool. Please consult with your own translator for accuracy if you are relying on the translation or are using this site for official business.

The US Dep’t of Labor has specifically held in UIPL 02-16 at 9 that machine translation — what google does when it translates — is NOT adequate and that these kinds of disclaimers are just silly. As explained on digitalgov.gov:

Some view disclaimers as the solution to justify an imperfect translation. Ask yourself and your managers: What are we trying to achieve? If an agency provides imperfect information but includes a disclaimer, the agency is essentially saying that it cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information they have provided. If so, how is this:

  • fulfilling a need?
  • fulfilling our mission?
  • serving the public?

Consider how you would react if you were reading information that had a disclaimer that said, very politely, that the agency can’t guarantee the integrity of the translation and, therefore, can’t guarantee the accuracy of the information it is giving you. A disclaimer on translated content works for the agency, but it does not work for the person trying to accomplish a task.

As already noted, this on-line mandate seems little more than an elaborate trap for charging claimants with fraud when they get confused and make a mistake on their claims. The initial screen claimants see with the on-line system — even before they create a user-id and password — makes this goal front and center:

Initial warning screen

New workers’ guide to unemployment law is available

A Workers’ Guide to Unemployment Insurance has just been updated. Significantly revised or new sections include:

  • notes about on-line claim-filing and timely appeals
  • examples of what actions can count as valid job searches
  • exclusions from receiving unemployment benefits when also receiving SSDI benefits
  • the new voluntary drug test reporting
  • misconduct disqualifications for negligent conduct that causes substantial damage or for absenteeism as determined by whatever the employer sets
  • descriptions about how the three exceptions to substantial fault are applied
  • in the fraud and concealment section, examples of the kind of mistakes for which DWD has typically charged unemployment fraud which the Commission usually overturns
  • DWD contact info for various records requests

If you have any unemployment claims or issues in Wisconsin, make sure to read this booklet thoroughly.

On-line only claims

The Department has announced that effective 24 May 2017, the on-line claims-filing process will be required for claimants.

The Department is also providing some additional information about work search requirements for laid off workers. There are no actual legal changes here, but the Department is providing one-stop access to employers and employees about the forms needed for getting work searches waived for eight weeks and then another four weeks.

The small print for the on-line only announcement, however, indicates that the phone system will still be available until some future unknown date. Since the on-line system is still English-only, federal requirements for ensuring access indicate that limiting access to an English-only on-line system could be a major problem.

Methods of Providing Access. For languages spoken by a significant number or proportion of the eligible service population, individuals should be able to learn about, apply for, and maintain eligibility in the relevant language(s) for every program delivery avenue (i.e., online, in person, and/or phone). The state agency should also ensure it has reasonable methods in place for identifying and reaching other LEP individuals who speak a language that is not spoken by a significant number or proportion of the eligible service population. As state UI agencies move to almost exclusively website-driven services, there is an increased likelihood that LEP individuals will face barriers to accessing information and claims-related access in violation of Title VI and regulations promulgated by WIA, as amended, and WIOA, and as described above.

UIPL No. 02-16, State Responsibilities for Ensuring Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits at 8. So, claimants should continue to use the phone system, especially when the on-line system can be used to entrap claimants into concealment for nothing more than a claim-filing mistake.

Initial warning screen

UI Presentations: Don’t file for UI

Over the last several months, I have made two presentations about unemployment law. On 16 May 2016, I explained to the South Central Federation of Labor about “Misconduct, substantial fault, and concealment: presuming employee fault.” For the 4 August 2016 meeting of the Wisconsin Association of Worker’s Compensation Attorneys, I offered a more detailed presentation about “Misconduct and substantial fault: presuming employee fault.”

The concealment changes that went into effect in April of 2016 cannot be emphasized too much. Here is what changed via 2015 Wis. Act 334:

Section 18. 108.04 (11) (g) of the statutes is renumbered 108.04 (11) (g) 1. and amended to read:

108.04 (11) (g) 1. For purposes of In this subsection, “conceal” means to intentionally mislead or defraud the department by withholding or hiding information or making a false statement or misrepresentation.

Section 19. 108.04 (11) (g) 2. and 3. of the statutes are created to read:

108.04 (11) (g) 2. A claimant has a duty of care to provide an accurate and complete response to each inquiry made by the department in connection with his or her receipt of benefits. The department shall consider the following factors in determining whether a claimant intended to mislead the department as described in subd. 1.:

a. Whether the claimant failed to read or follow instructions or other communications of the department related to a claim for benefits.

b. Whether the claimant relied on the statements or representations of persons other than an employee of the department who is authorized to provide advice regarding the claimant’s claim for benefits.

c. Whether the claimant has a limitation or disability and, if so, whether the claimant provided evidence to the department of that limitation or disability.

d. The claimant’s unemployment insurance claims filing experience.

e. Any instructions or previous determinations of concealment issued or provided to the claimant.

f. Any other factor that may provide evidence of the claimant’s intent.

3. Nothing in this subsection requires the department, when making a finding of concealment, to determine or prove that a claimant had an intent or design to receive benefits to which the claimant knows he or she was not entitled.

At the same time this new law took effect in April 2016, the Department also instituted its new on-line claim-filing process that turned 11 or so questions into a 40+ question marathon.

These two changes go hand in hand. First, this new definition of concealment makes claimants liable for unemployment fraud for their unintentional mistakes on their claims. Second, the new on-line process is so complicated and cumbersome that a mistake is now incredibly easy to make (e.g., by reporting income in the wrong category or failing to check a definition relating to a question that you don’t think applies to your situation — $10 from a parent for taking care of the laundry or cutting the grass counts as babysitting income that should be reported).

Accordingly, given the ease of making a mistake and the consequences for concealment related to that mistake, no one should be filing for unemployment benefits anymore.

If you absolutely must file for unemployment benefits, do NOT file via the on-line process but make all your weekly claims by phone. And, try to get a DWD specialist on the phone when filing your weekly claim certifications and take detailed notes of any advice your receive from that DWD representative. That advice is probably your only avenue for escaping a concealment charge from DWD when you make a mistake.

New Internet Claims Filing Process for 2016

The Department of Workforce Development is revamping its Internet Claims Filing process with a much more complicated and detailed series of questions and screens. At the December 17th Advisory Council meeting, the Department was scheduled to present to the council what these changes would entail. Because of other issues, however, the council never got to see this presentation. Luckily, the Department sent me a copy.

Those filing their weekly claim certifications will now be told about fraud warnings at the start and end of their claim filing. See pp.2 and 17. And, the 14 questions now being asked are at least 20+ questions. Furthermore, rather than simplifying the information being asked about, the new questions continue to be legalistic and leave key information out.

NOTE: For comparison, here are the questions Massachusetts asks claimants (in Massachusetts, the phone questions are the same as when filing by Internet).

NOTE: Also compare the information available in the Massachusetts Guide to Benefits for Claimants with Wisconsin’s Handbook for Claimants. Notice the kind of information available in Massachusetts and the tone of how that information is presented as compared to Wisconsin.

For example, in Wisconsin there will now be a question about school attendance. See p.3. Usually, when you attend school during your regular work shift you are ineligible for unemployment benefits. But, if you work during the evenings while attend classes during the day, you should still be eligible for unemployment benefits when laid off from your evening job. In this case, the schooling does not interfere with your availability on your typical work shift. The new Internet filing form, however, only asks about attending classes during the day and does not include or ask for any information about regular work shifts.

Able and available status are now two separate questions as well. See pp.4 and 5. Missing work because of illness usually leads to a reduction in weekly benefits because work was missed. The question on p.4, however, only asks about your regular employer. Because many claimants who have temporary, part-time work do not think of those employers as their “regular” employers, they will not think a question about missing work with a temporary employer because of sickness is included in this question. This question should be asking about any current or future employer and make no reference to a “regular” employer.

Problems with other questions continue. Claimants are supposed to report all wages earned in the week for which they are filing, regardless of when they are actually paid those wages. So, the Department goes into detail about how to report those wages and hours (and minutes) of work for employers (see pp.6-8) as well as how commission work and sales are to be reported (see p.9). But, then the Department asks about sick pay, bonus pay, holiday pay, and other kinds of pay (see pp.10-12) as already received for the week — “did you receive?” — or to be received — “will you receive?” As a result, these questions imply that regular wages that are to be paid in the future do not need to reported since there is no question about reporting wages that “will be received?” Instead of two questions for vacation pay et al., only one should be asked: “Are you to receive?” And, instead of all of these separate kinds of wage income that now has to be reported separately, the Department should simply ask claimants to report “Any and all kinds of income connected to the work with EMPLOYER you are to receive for the week at issue.” By breaking these kinds of income into separate categories, the Department is requiring claimants to have an accountant’s understanding of their income in order to correctly fill out their weekly claim certifications rather than just asking for the total, gross amount of all income regardless of kind.

NOTE: The Department will even have a screen for miscellaneous income, such as baby-sitting, that has to be reported. See p.13.

Specific work search information for each job action will also now have to be provided. See p.15.

Given all the information that has to be provided in the proper category now, opportunities for mistakes will abound. And, any mistake will be an opportunity for charging claimants with fraud. In short, this new Internet filing process will NOT make it easier for claimants to file their weekly claims. But, this new process will make it easier for the Department to charge claimants with concealment.

On-line claims filing updates

The Department of Workforce Development issued the following press release on Nov. 3rd about on-line claims filing.

UI Online Upgrades Modernize Initial Claims Filing in Wisconsin

90% of initial claims that are started online are now completed without the need to speak to a specialist

MADISON – One year after the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) rolled out a redesigned online system to help Unemployment Insurance (UI) claimants start and complete their initial claims for unemployment benefits through the Internet, over 90% of initial claimants who start the filing process online are completing their claim without the need to speak to a specialist.

“We’re pleased with the success of our new system, as evidenced by the increase in the percentage of people who are completing online initial claims without the need to speak to a specialist,” DWD Secretary Reggie Newson said. “The investments we have made in a robust, nimble and customer-friendly online claims system will pay dividends in the form of added efficiency and convenience as federal UI financial support declines due to the state’s improving economy, and as we transition to a 21st century customer-service model that more fully uses online tools.”

The November 2014 rollout of the UI initial claims redesign featured new tools to enter accurate information, the ability to save work and finish claims later, additional flexibility to resolve eligibility questions online quickly, and other enhancements that reduce the need to talk to a specialist and are prompting claimants to file online instead of by phone.

Highlights of the positive impact that the UI online initial claim filing system has had over the past 12 months include:

  • Of those who start an initial claim online, the percentage of claimants who complete initial claims online increased from about 57 percent to 90 percent.
  • The percentage of claimants who start their initial claim online has also risen. As a result of these two improvements, the percentage of people who are using online services from start to finish without needing to speak to a claims specialist has nearly doubled.
  • 78 percent of claimants who are required to search for work file their weekly claims online, in part to enter their weekly searches in work search logs that now must be provided either online or by fax or mail before claimants can collect unemployment benefits.
  • UI estimates 57,000 initial claims that have been completed online would have required a claim specialist’s assistance before the initial claim redesign took effect in November 2014.

While DWD’s telephone-based automated filing system will remain an option for claimants who prefer to file claims by phone instead of through the Internet, DWD is responding to customer trends toward online and helping to minimize call wait times across the week by fully implementing a call scheduling system called guaranteed call priority this month for claimants who file initial claims by phone or are calling with a general question.

Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays each will be assigned to one-third of claimants who file by phone, with Thursdays and Fridays open to all claimants who file by phone. Online services will be available to all claimants seven days a week. UI is proactively notifying claimants that guaranteed call priority takes effect November 9 and will help ensure call wait times are minimized throughout the week.

Secretary Newson noted that other states have implemented assigned days to reduce wait times, and Wisconsin has done so on a voluntary basis since summer 2014. “We will continue to encourage all claimants to file online, which they can do any day of the week,” he said.

Note that telephone claim services are now being limited. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be limited by one-third in some way (it is unclear whether one-third of the staffers are available or one-third of the claimants can call on these days). On Tuesdays and Thursdays, however, no call-in limits will be in place.