Unemployment delays, part 8

The Department’s own claim-filing mistakes

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.

if you dig further into the jobs figures, we see the gains were pretty widespread, and show that WMC/GOP memes about “lazy workers not wanting jobs” continue not to hold water.

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

Employed
Seasonally-adjusted +8,700
Non-seasonally adjusted +50,200

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.

Unemployment delays, part 7

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.

Objection contact info

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).

First call

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.

Second call

After identifying myself and the client by social security number, I was disconnected.

Third call

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.

Fourth call

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.

Fifth call

I dialed 608-318-7100. After identifying myself and the client by social security number, I was disconnected.

Sixth call

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.

Seventh call

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.

Conclusions

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.

Initial claims and a new benefit year?

With the pandemic coming up on a year, many folks are seeing notices on their portal about needing to file a new initial claim because they have a new benefit year. The notice looks something like the following:

Your current benefit year has ended with the week you just filed a weekly claim for.

If you want to receive benefits for the week ending 03/20/21 you must file an initial claim application to start a new benefit year. To file an initial claim click on the “File Initial Claim” button.

If you do not need to file for the week ending 03/20/21, the next time you need to file for benefits you will need to file an new initial claim application.

If you are receiving or have filed a claim for regular unemployment benefits, PEUC benefits, or EB benefits, then you need to heed this notice.

But, this notice makes no sense whatsoever if you are filing for or receiving PUA benefits because you are not eligible for regular unemployment benefits in the first place, as there is no “benefit year” connected to PUA benefits.

Claimants receiving PUA benefits have called Department staffers to ask what they should do. Those staffers have correctly replied that claimants receiving PUA benefits should NOT file a new initial claim, as that initial claim triggers a new investigation into their eligibility for regular unemployment benefits. That investigation will only delay payments even further and add to the Department’s already too high workload.

The only claimants receiving PUA benefits who should file a new initial claim at the end of a benefit year are those claimants receiving PUA benefits because they exhausted their eligibility for regular unemployment benefits, PEUC benefits, and EB benefits or those individuals receiving PUA benefits because the specific PUA reason for benefits is not available to them under regular unemployment law.

Note: The reasons a claimant normally eligible for regular unemployment benefits would receive PUA benefits is, for example, because they are quarantined because of Covid-19, school employees in certain circumstances, and those who left jobs because an employer is not following public health orders. These last two reasons are covered under new federal guidance released on February 25th of this year, UIPL 16-20 Change 5 (25 Feb. 2021). A discussion of that new guidance is in the works.

Everyone else receiving PUA benefits — typically independent contractors and claimants excluded under state law from receiving regular unemployment benefits — should NOT file an initial claim ever.

Your first initial PUA claim should suffice for all your PUA benefits until there is a new reason for you to claim PUA benefits, such as if you returned to full-time work and stopped claiming PUA benefits altogether, only to be quarantined when you caught Covid-19. In that circumstance, you would file a new PUA initial claim citing the quarantine as the reason for the new PUA initial claim. Previously, the Department did not allow any additional PUA claims to be filed. The new federal guidance mandates that multiple PUA claims be allowed.

Unemployment delays, part 6

Previous posts detailed the length of time and number of cases in the unemployment backlog in part 1, some of the mistakes by the Department that allow cases to be re-opened in part 2, a place for stories and advice about how to find assistance in part 3, how most claims in Wisconsin — and unlike in other states — are being denied and thereby creating a ginormous backlog in hearings in part 4, and in part 5 how the Department’s big push to fix the backlog in December 2020 was creating a hearings backlog and not addressing the root causes of all the delays.

Hard data regarding the Department’s handling of initial claims is now available about that big push for clearing the backlog.

Date        First   15 days 21 days 35 days
           payments
01/31/2021  18,094  64.70%  70.10%  77.00%
12/31/2020  35,548  49.50%  54.50%  61.70%
11/30/2020  13,676  65.00%  67.80%  71.70%
10/31/2020  10,249  56.10%  58.70%  62.20%
09/30/2020  8,709   50.40%  53.00%  57.10%
08/31/2020  11,144  53.10%  55.10%  57.50%
07/31/2020  15,410  39.20%  41.20%  43.90%
06/30/2020  18,862  39.30%  40.40%  42.60%
05/31/2020  36,273  33.00%  35.90%  47.50%
04/30/2020  183,447 81.90%  88.60%  98.80%
03/31/2020  26,472  95.50%  97.60%  99.00%
pandemic    377,884 57.06%  60.26%  65.36%

prepandemic 239,601 86.80%  92.86%  96.85%
(Jan. 2018 thru Feb. 2020)

As evident here, December 2020 saw a marked increase in first payments of initial claims, around 2.5x the number of payments in November 2020. Unfortunately, the number of first payments declined by half in January 2021.

This increase in first payments for December, however, is good news because the hearings backlog did not skyrocket. Previously, I had feared that the hearings backlog would be at 25,000. At the end of January 2021, the hearings backlog had only climbed to 15,915, up from 15,744 in December 2020.

So, kudos to the Department for clearing some cases by getting those cases approved.

Still, systemic problems with the processing of unemployment claims remain. This first payment data indicates that the effort to clear the backlog was a one-time event. TMJ4 reports that the processing delays have arisen in part because the Department added a bunch of new staffers with minimal training who then focus on specific issues rather than looking at the big picture.

Second, way too many initial claims are still NOT being paid. Through January 2021, Wisconsin has only made first payments of 27.98% of 147,260 PUA initial claims. For comparison, North Carolina has made first payments in 60% of 415,747 PUA initial claims, and New Jersey has made first payment of 76% out of 707,167 PUA initial claims.

For initial claims of regular unemployment benefits, Wisconsin has only made first payments of 30.85% out of 1,248,186 initial claims through the end of January 2021. Prior to the pandemic, the percentage of initial claims that ended up with a first payment in Wisconsin was 38.81%. So, Wisconsin is actually paying out fewer initial claims during the pandemic than from before the pandemic.

In comparison, Colorado’s first payments during the pandemic are at 64.20% out of 775,053 initial claims. Prior to the pandemic, the percentage of initial claims with first payments in Colorado was at 65.40%. In North Carolina, 44.82% of 1,642,172 initial claims for regular unemployment benefits during the pandemic led to first payments (prior to the pandemic, North Carolina was paying 45.25% of initial claims for regular unemployment benefits). Only New Jersey has seen a sharp decline in first payments for regular unemployment claims, paying 38.29% of 2,025,278 initial claims, down from 51.72% prior to the pandemic.

So, the claim-filing problems in Wisconsin are more severe than in any other state, including states like New Jersey and Colorado that still have COBOL-based mainframes on the back end of their claim-filing systems. The majority of initial claims in Wisconsin simply are NOT being paid at all.

Third and more troubling, there is now a major backlog with unemployment hearings that shows no signs of being cleared anytime soon. During the pandemic, the number of appeals filed per month have averaged 4,138 per month, while the number of appeal tribunal decisions has averaged 2,958 per month, more than a thousand less than the number of appeals. In January 2021, that gap declined to around 500 more appeals than decisions.

So, the size of this hearing backlog of around 16,000 cases now means that claimants will likely have to wait eight or more months for their cases to be heard.

And, the number of initial claims is still running more than 2x higher than normal. As a result, there are plenty of cases still in the pipeline.

w/e 2021    Week    Ratio   2021    2020    Difference
12/26/20    52      1.36    14,235  10,483  3,752
01/02/21    1       1.49    19,161  12,854  6,307 (new data source)
01/09/21    2       2.73    22,539  8,255   14,284
01/16/21    3       2.66    16,977  6,388   10,589
01/23/21    4       2.52    15,439  6,134   9,305
01/30/21    5       2.48    15,584  6,280   9,304
02/06/21    6       2.28    14,970  6,579   8,391
02/13/21    7       2.79    16,205  5,808   10,397
02/20/21    8       2.66    16,207  6,098   10,109
02/27/21    9       2.35    13,272  5,658   7,614
03/06/21    10      2.41    12,173  5,052   7,121
03/13/21    11              
Totals              2.22    176,762 79,589  97,173
Source: https://dwd.wisconsin.gov/uistats/

Out of 63 SSDI-PUA claimants I am currently working with, 21 are still waiting for their benefits, now a year into the pandemic. Only 26 (less than half) have been paid their PUA benefits without additional hiccups (and most of them were not paid until August and September of 2020). Most of the 21 claimants still waiting for any payment have yet to even have a hearing.

26 — Yes — PUA paid
13 –No — PUA claim denied
5 — ? — payment status unknown
8 — Yes & No — paid some, and then denied
6 — Not covid19 — denied because of no pandemic-related job loss
2 — Not A&A — denied because not able and available
3 — Yes, some — paid some PUA, waiting on rest
63 — Total claimants

As usual, John Oliver explains how truly broken unemployment is throughout the nation:

The failures in the unemployment system is a national problem. What has happened in Wisconsin is simply a “leading” indicator of how just how broken the system is. This propublica description of the claim-filing problems in North Carolina, for instance, also describes many of the same issues in Wisconsin about changes on making claim-filing more difficult, reducing already low employer taxes even further, and cutting off eligibility through additional claim-filing requirements.

Reporters have informed me that claimants are only winning around 30% of their appeal tribunal decisions after an appeal of an initial determining denying their claim (roughly the same percentage prior to the pandemic). That percentage is terrible. Almost all of the denials I am seeing are without any factual or legal merit but occur because the investigator has found a piece of information on the initial claim or a weekly certification to be less than perfect for establishing eligibility. This low win rate for unemployment hearings indicates that the biases against allowing benefits to claimants remain solidly in place: administrative law judges are looking for reasons and evidence for getting claims denied rather than explaining and helping claimants to get those denials over-turned.

So, having representation for these hearings is even more vital now, given the complexity of Wisconsin unemployment to begin with when coupled to the all of the new federal benefit programs that have been added.

I have done a video interview with the Wisconsin state bar where I plead for more lawyers to get involved with these unemployment cases.

Lawyers who want to help should read the unemployment primer, the Workers’ Guide to Unemployment Law, and look at the training done in May 2020 by Legal Action and Judicare. Marquette law school is providing the videos and materials for that training as well as other training sessions at this link.

Finally, law students at UW-Madison Law School have stepped up during this crisis and helped out with hundreds of claimants. They have done a remarkable job. Anyone interested in supporting the clinic’s efforts should visit the clinic’s gofundme page.

Unemployment delays, part 5

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, and how most claims in Wisconsin — and unlike in other states — are being denied and thereby creating a ginormous backlog in hearings in part 4.

The Department announced at the end of 2020 that the claims backlog had been cleared and that Transition Secretary Pechacek was now Secretary-Designee for the Department. According to the Department:

“Since the start of the pandemic, our top priority at DWD has been ensuring that all eligible unemployment claims in Wisconsin are paid as quickly as possible,” Pechacek said. “Today, I am proud to say we have reached our goal to clear the backlog of claims. The tireless work of DWD staff has made it possible for UI to resume its seasonal level of timeliness in January. I look forward to implementing further enhancements to our UI processes to continue to improve services to Wisconsinites who are out of work through no fault of their own.”

Unfortunately, hard data is not available. The Department’s weekly data post was last provided on Dec. 22nd, and the Department has revealed this week that the daily initial claims data will no longer be provided in lieu of a weekly summation.

The Department’s previous weekly data reports provide running totals of claimants paid unemployment benefits, initial claims that were filed, and the number of claimants still waiting on their claims to be adjudicated. When combined into one document, simple math in a spreadsheet allows for weekly changes in these totals to be tracked, and those weekly totals reveal that the “backlog” has largely been “fixed” by denying initial claims.

Claims procesed by week

The first, brown line shows the weekly change in the number of initial claims filed by week. This data was reported in May 2020, whereas the rest of the data was not first reported until August 2020.

The green, triangle line reveals the number of claimants by week reported by the Department as being paid regular unemployment benefits. Until late December, this weekly number was the lowest being reported.

The purple, triangle line shows the weekly change in the number of claimants who were either not paid or denied regular unemployment benefits (initial claims minus paid claimants). Until early December, this number kept increasing until it plunged to under 5,000 for the 12/15/2020 data release.

The red, hourglass line shows the weekly change in denied claims (initial claims minus paid claimants and then minus claimants still waiting on adjudication). This number jumped markedly for the 9/29/2020 data release, then continued to increase by 10,000 a week to over 16,000 a week by the first December report. And, each subsequent week in December saw an even greater number of initial claims being denied, such that in the last two weeks there were more claims being denied than initial claims being filed (a difference of more than 10,000 for the final week of data).

Initial claims and claimants are not exactly interchangeable numbers, as there are circumstances where an individual claimant can have more than one initial claim. But, initial claim data is generally understood as a good proxy for the number of claimants in an unemployment system, and so is the statistic used in unemployment circles to assess how many actual people are filing claims because of job loss, especially since weekly claims data only really measures the number of claimants who have had their claims approved and are receiving benefits or are in the process of receiving benefits.

Because the Department has continued to rely on weekly claims data, the Department has under-reported the claims backlog and has completely missed the growing number of claims getting denied.

In a late-October memo to then Transition-Secretary Pechacek, I wrote the following about this counting problem:

Currently, the Department has been reporting weekly claims data as descriptive of how the Department has managed its pandemic response (more than 90% of weekly claims have been paid is a common talking point of the Department’s). Weekly claims data provides a measure of the financial drain on the unemployment trust fund and says little to nothing about the actual number of initial claims that have been filed with the pandemic or how many of those claims have actually been processed by the Department. Weekly claims data only indicates the number of weeks of benefits that have been claimed and so provides a measure of the “draw” on the unemployment trust fund. This statistic says nothing about the number of people who have denied their claims and those still waiting on their claims to be decided.

If you want to know how the Department is actually doing with its processing of unemployment claims, the traditional measures are around first payments and the average number of days needed for various steps (first payments, adjudication, and appeal tribunal decision). While the Department refuses to provide this data in response to queries, the Department must provide this data to the Dep’t of Labor. As a result, anyone conversant with unemployment has access to this data.

The picture this data paints is horrendous. Through the end of August, Wisconsin reports 918,757 initial claims connected to the pandemic (initial claims filed in March through August) and only 294,571 first payments for those same months, a percentage of 32.06%. Prior to the pandemic (the months from January 2018 through February 2020 — two years and two months), there were 632,728 initial claims and 245,558 first payments, a percentage of 38.81%. Not only are these percentages some of the lowest in the nation, Wisconsin may be the only state that has actually experienced a decline in first payments during the pandemic.

Note: Dep’t of Labor data for PUA claims filed from March thru August indicate that Wisconsin has paid 30.96% of 103,511 PUA initial applications. The percentage in other states is starkly better: North Carolina with 257,718 PUA initial claims is at 74.45%, Minnesota with 108,110 initial claims is at 86.87%, and Florida is at 88.91% for 329,289 PUA initial claims. Even Illinois with 335,533 initial PUA claims is at 45.15% (and without any August data).

And, denial rates have actually increased since the pandemic started, particularly for reasons that have nothing to do with an actual separation from work (i.e., a failure to follow a Department claim-filing requirement).

Proporation of denials by separation and non-separation reasons

The data for when the Department first pays unemployment claims shows a major breakdown here as well. The Dep’t of Labor requires that 87% of all first payments must be made within 14 days (waiting week) or 21 days (no waiting week) and 93% within 35 days. See UIPL 21-04 (18 May 2004) (available at https://wdr.doleta.gov/directives/attach/UIPL21-04.pdf). First payment rates have plummeted in Wisconsin.

Timeliness of first payments

This combination of more claims being denied alongside the increased delays in paying claims that are eventually approved creates a second bottleneck at the adjudication stage. For the months from March through August of this year, only 52.58% of appeal tribunal decisions have been issued within 30 days and 78.73% on average have been issued within 45 days.

Note: The Dep’t of Labor threshold is 60% and 80% of these decisions, respectively.

These numbers are only going to get worse. At the end of August 2020, there were 9,655 cases pending before appeal tribunals, roughly 9x the number of pending cases that existed on a monthly basis prior to the pandemic. Granted, many of these cases are nonsensical and lead to quick hearings (since the administrative law judge is simply recognizing the obvious, like the claimant was laid off because of the pandemic). But, the administrative sludge created by this crush of cases is having its natural effect of short tempers among staffers at all levels and claimants giving up in the face of these mindless obstacles. As I explained in “Unemployment delays, part 1” (16 Sept. 2020) (available at https://wisconsinui.wordpress.com/2020/09/16/delays-part-1/):

“At the end of March, some major problems and bottlenecks in the claims-filing process were identified [https://wisconsinui.wordpress.com/2020/03/31/claims-and-phone-calls/]. Other than what was noted then, many of those bottlenecks continue to exist.

“On May 12th, as the claims piled up, processing delays were enormous [https://wisconsinui.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/backlogs-with-claims/]: a month was needed just to process a faxed or mailed document for an unemployment claim and more than a week just to get a document recognized by the hearing office after being received.

“Now in mid-September it still takes around 30 days for a claim document sent by mail or fax to be processed. And, information sent to a hearing office still takes 5+ days to be processed. Furthermore, while the clogged phone lines to reach a claim specialist have been opened up, it is now incredibly difficult to contact the hearing office by phone. In my experience, it takes numerous phones calls over a day or two and then a hold of 30 to 70 minutes or more before I can get through to a hearing office staffer.”

And, there is no glimpse of a decline in unemployment claims anytime soon. Right now, initial claims are on the rise, and the trajectory of the pandemic in the nation and in Wisconsin indicates that the situation is likely to get worse (week 11 was 1:1).

Ratio of 2020 to 2019 initial claims by week

As of week 42, nearly 1 million initial claims have been filed in Wisconsin, and there are close to 120,000 PUA claims that have been filed (the approximate number of regular initial claims paid in all of 2019 or 2018). The unemployment system as currently designed and implemented is designed to stymie successful claims. Whereas before the pandemic folks simply gave up on unemployment and found low-wage work as a substitute, those job options are no longer available at the moment. So, not only will there never be a clearing of the claims backlog under the current system, but a tidal wave of cases will be created at the hearing stage regarding people will be challenging the unjust denial of their claims. Major change in how the Department handles unemployment claims is the only way to escape a new meltdown and political fallout.

On 14 December 2020, the Legislative Audit Bureau released an audit report on the Department’s claims-processing delays. The results of that audit bares out what I indicated back in October.

First, the audit revealed that the number of claimants waiting on their claims was much larger than being reported by the Department:

As of October 10, 2020, DWD had paid 493,504 of the 662,731 individuals (74.5 percent) who had filed initial claims for regular program benefits since March 15, 2020, but it had not paid the remaining 169,227 individuals (25.5 percent). DWD may not have paid these individuals because it had not yet resolved their claims, it had denied their claims, or the individuals had withdrawn their claims. The data we obtained from DWD did not indicate the reasons why DWD did not pay these claims.

Report 20-28 (Processing Certain Unemployment Insurance Claims) at 6. In comparison, in its October 13th report, the Department indicated that the weekly claims “in process” were only 8.12% of the weekly claims filed — a figure three times smaller than the actual number of claimants still waiting on their claims.

Second, the audit revealed that over three quarters of all initial claims were being adjudicated rather than just approved (as typically happens when both employer and employee report a layoff and there are no other “issues” discovered in the documents):

We found that DWD placed into adjudication the initial claims of 514,026 of the 662,731 individuals (77.6 percent) who filed claims from March 15, 2020, through October 10, 2020. DWD may place a given claim into adjudication because of multiple issues. As of October 10, 2020, 96,623 of the 514,026 individuals (18.8 percent) still had initial claims in adjudication.

Report 20-28 (Processing Certain Unemployment Insurance Claims) at 9.

Third, the audit bureau randomly sampled 268 individuals to assess how quickly the Department processed their claims.

our file review found that DWD had resolved the initial claims of 250 of the 268 individuals (93.3 percent) as of November 2020. DWD’s data indicate that 70 of the 144 individuals whose initial claims DWD had denied subsequently filed new claims after April 11, 2020. As of October 10, 2020, 34 of those 70 individuals were paid program benefits.

Report 20-28 (Processing Certain Unemployment Insurance Claims) at 12. The audit bureau concluded:

it took an average of 13.0 weeks to resolve the initial claims of the 250 individuals in our file review. We estimate that it took an average of 11.5 weeks to deny the claims of the 144 individuals and an average of 15.5 weeks to pay program benefits to the 103 individuals.

We estimate that DWD was responsible for 11.0 of the 13.0 weeks (84.6 percent) that it took, on average, to resolve the initial claims of the 250 individuals. For example, DWD was responsible for time that elapsed before it requested information it needed from individuals and employers, and for time that elapsed after it had the information necessary to pay or deny program benefits but did not do so. In contrast, DWD was not responsible for time that elapsed while it waited for individuals and employers to provide information it had requested.

Our file review found more than 950 instances when DWD was responsible for time elapsing while it processed the initial claims of the 268 individuals. The 268 individuals each experienced, on average, more than 3.5 instances when DWD was responsible for time elapsing during initial claims processing. A given claim could have multiple instances if, for example, time elapsed before DWD requested information from individuals or employers, and then additional time elapsed after DWD received the information.

This last point reveals a state agency overwhelmed with so much work that staffers cannot even look at case files in a timely way. Unlike every other state, however, Wisconsin has NOT changed its adjudication process whatsoever in the face of the pandemic (CA: weekly claims allowed every other week; every other state but WI: waiving investigation of benefit year separations for pandemic-related job losses, since employer accounts are not charged for any benefits connected to such job losses).

So, the delays revealed by the audit bureau are a natural consequence of Department staffers still trying to do the same job they have been doing for the last few years alongside the same denial criteria and impulses without any pressure from above to approve claims or altering the adjudication process in light of the tidal waive of claims connected to the pandemic.

Given that most initial claims are being denied, all the problems revealed by the audit bureau are making their way to the hearing office. Simple errors are popping up all over the place, for no other reason than because staffers and administrative law judges are being overwhelmed with their workload. Hearings are generally short — since eligibility facts are already in the investigatory record and just need to be entered into the hearing record. But, getting all those decisions written and properly entered is causing problems I have never seen to this extent before. Almost every case now is falling into limbo because of some processing error that hearing office staffers now are having great difficulty fixing.

My December has been about as bad as it has ever been with this pandemic. And, given the skyrocketing number of claims that were denied in December, I suspect that these hearing office problems are only expanding.

We are in for a world of hurt for 2021, I fear.

Update (5 Jan. 2021): tjm4 has a review of the ongoing claims-handling problems at the Department, and the Racine Journal-Times details these on-going problems as systemic.

Unemployment delays, part 4

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, and a place for stories and advice about how to find assistance in part 3.

Jake explains in posts on Nov. 14th and Nov. 19th that:

  • job losses are now spiking both nationally and state-wide,
  • the ensuing loss of PUA benefits at the end of 2020 is a fiscal cliff for millions, and
  • continuing claims demonstrate that long-term job losses are becoming entrenched.

Wisconsin’s own jobs report for October 2020 reinforced these conclusions, as the state unemployment rate rose markedly because of losses in leisure and hospitality and the public sector.

The actual initial claims data indicates that the pandemic has created a systemic increase in the number of new initial claims being filed every single week.

Initial claims filed in Wisconsin, Week 11-47

Since the start of the pandemic, initial claims have leveled off to around 5x what was filed for the comparable week in 2019. There are two noticeable dips where the ratio dropped significantly down below five: first for the weeks 35-37 and again for the weeks 44-47. The reason for these dips, however, are quite different. In weeks 35-37, there was an actual decline in the number of initial claims being filed in 2020. In weeks 44-47, on the other hand, the drop in the ratio is not from a decline of initial claims in 2020 but from an increase in initial claims that were filed in 2019.

w/e 2020  Week  Ratio   2020    2019 
03/14/20    11  1.02    5,698   5,587
03/21/20    12  13.29   69,342  5,216
03/28/20    13  20.51   115,679 5,640
04/04/20    14  19.95   103,226 5,173
04/11/20    15  14.21   65,654  4,619
04/18/20    16  12.12   56,038  4,624
04/25/20    17  10.64   48,630  4,570
05/02/20    18  9.47    39,278  4,146
05/09/20    19  8.73    35,134  4,026
05/16/20    20  9.21    31,851  3,460
05/23/20    21  7.28    26,384  3,626
05/30/20    22  6.16    22,835  3,709
06/06/20    23  4.90    22,497  4,592
06/13/20    24  4.51    24,226  5,373
06/20/20    25  4.31    23,773  5,514
06/27/20    26  6.00    29,727  4,956
07/04/20    27  5.35    27,619  5,159
07/11/20    28  4.93    27,774  5,631
07/18/20    29  6.14    23,396  3,808
07/25/20    30  5.94    20,951  3,530
08/01/20    31  4.76    17,702  3,717
08/08/20    32  3.79    14,467  3,816
08/15/20    33  4.75    15,484  3,262
08/22/20    34  4.29    14,092  3,287
08/29/20    35  3.44    13,122  3,818
09/05/20    36  3.48    13,025  3,742
09/12/20    37  3.44    12,432  3,619
09/19/20    38  4.40    14,012  3,186
09/26/20    39  4.86    15,225  3,131
10/03/20    40  4.41    16,876  3,824
10/10/20    41  5.38    20,985  3,904
10/17/20    42  5.06    18,113  3,577
10/24/20    43  4.44    17,731  3,990
10/31/20    44  3.62    17,961  4,956
11/07/20    45  2.90    17,136  5,911
11/14/20    46  2.66    18,500  6,951
11/21/20    47  2.49    19,967  8,031
                6.81 1,090,844  160,094

As Wisconsin still has winter, there are a host of industries (road construction, landscaping, recreation, and others) that lay off their workers on a seasonal basis, and so there is a steady rise in initial claims every year for these Wisconsin workers. As a result, this latest dip in the ratio does NOT represent an actual decline in initial claims in 2020. Rather, all that is happening is that the number of cases in 2020 is simply not rising enough to match the increases from 2019. All told, pandemic-related claims are still much higher than last year, as Wisconsin has experienced an increase of roughly 7x the initial claims from what was previously filed in 2019.

And, most of these 2020 claimants are seeing their initial unemployment claims denied. The percentage of regular unemployment claims leading to a first payment of benefits is actually down in Wisconsin from before the pandemic.

For the months of January 2018 through February 2020, there were 632,728 initial claims in Wisconsin, of which 245,558 led to first payments, a percentage of regular unemployment claims being paid of 38.81%.

Here is the monthly initial claims data for Wisconsin for the months of the pandemic:

Month      Initial  1st Pay     %
10/31/20    62,178   10,156  16.33
09/30/20    50,918    9,981  19.60
08/31/20    68,312   11,677  17.09
07/31/20    120,078  15,252  12.70
06/30/20    112,520  19,034  16.92
05/31/20    135,138  35,508  26.28
04/30/20    243,208 183,828  75.58
03/31/20    239,501  29,272  12.22
          1,031,853 314,708  30.50%

Source: https://tcf-ui-data.shinyapps.io/ui-data-explorer/

So, during this pandemic, Wisconsin is actually paying out fewer claims than it did from before the pandemic. Less than one out of three initial claims are leading to a first payment, whereas before the pandemic nearly two our of every five claims was being paid.

For comparison, here are initial claims and first payment data during the pandemic for several other states:

ST  Initial     1st Pay     %
NC  1,452,638    700,687  48.24
MI  1,997,061  1,168,887  58.53
FL  3,298,791  1,578,803  47.86
IL  2,037,211  1,063,231  52.19
AR    412,425    179,558  43.54
PA  2,233,652  1,201,647  53.80
IN  1,322,840    553,568  41.85
OR    621,445    357,489  57.53

Source: https://tcf-ui-data.shinyapps.io/ui-data-explorer/

In all these state but Illinois, the percentage of first payments is up from before the pandemic (Illinois declined slightly from a pre-pandemic percentage of 56.34%). Even Oregon, subject to a state law suit over the slow claims-processing in that state, has managed to pay out well more than half of the claims it has managed to process.

All of these claims being denied in Wisconsin has led to a staggering backlog in hearings.

Prior to the pandemic, appeal tribunals were issuing around 1,200 to 1,500 decisions a month. Here is what happened with the pandemic:

Month  Pending  Filed   Decided
Oct    12,771   4,480   3,289
Sept.  11,052   4,414   3,063
Aug     9,655   4,860   3,236
July    6,719   4,442   4,083
June    6,309   3,307   3,363
May     6,296   4,922   3,724
April   5,090   6,034   2,492
March   1,520   1,952   1,565
               34,411  24,815

In the last few months, more than 4,000 appeals of initial determinations have been filed every single month. Administrative law judges are now issuing more than 3,000 decisions these same months. But, they cannot keep up, and the backlog of pending cases is, at the end of October 2020, nearly 13,000 cases. If not a single appeal was filed after October 31st, it would still take around four months to clear the current backlog of cases that need a hearing.

For comparison, in Illinois, which has twice the number of initial claims that Wisconsin has, pending cases before an administrative law judge at the end of October numbered just 2,069. Pennsylvania has a backlog at the end of October of 3,950 pending cases — one-third of the backlog in Wisconsin — even though Pennsylvania has handled more than twice the number of initial claims than Wisconsin has.

Given the backlog of cases in Wisconsin, it is no wonder that folks should now expect to wait four to six months for their hearing. Because Wisconsin has kept every possible disqualification alive during this pandemic except for the four job searches a week and so is investigating any and all potential disqualifications — even issues going as far back as January 2019 — the system simply cannot keep up. The more people that are hired at the Department simply means more cases that have to be adjudicated.

So, if not approved for unemployment benefits soon after filing an initial claim, expect to wait several months or longer for a decision. And, if that initial determination does not go your way, expect to wait four to eight months for your hearing after filing your appeal.

All I can offer at the moment is the possible assistance described in part 3 of this series. Unemployment in Wisconsin truly is broken.

Unemployment delays, part 3: your stories here

These posts — hundreds of thousands still waiting to be paid benefits and about legal obstacles being waived because of Department mishandling of claims — have led folks to contact me about their own stories of delay.

Note: The comments on numerous posts on this blog already contain dozens of stories about delays with claims. See here, here, here, and here, for example.

These stories need to be consolidated in one place. Why not right here with this post?

So, if you have a story about a delay, please add it to the comments below. Update your story, if possible. You can include any personal details you want or leave your story anonymously. While wordpress requires you to include an e-mail address when posting a comment, only I will know about that e-mail address. And, frankly, I do not have the time to follow-up with you directly about your story. So, I will not be sharing your information with anyone.

Note: Despite the urge, please refrain from profanity or personal attacks against identifiable people. And, do try to include paragraph breaks so that your story is easier to read.

To kick off these stories, here is one I received last night from an attorney:

I helped my stepson apply in April. He has yet to see a dime. They’re waiting on adjudication on a job that he had for a couple months that he quit to take a better job.

I called two days ago and talked to someone who was utterly clueless. She was only able to tell me that the holdup is because the employer isn’t responding. I said well then make a determination based on the information you have! This is being held up for five months now because the employer didn’t respond.

She said the law requires them to send a certain number of letters out to the employer before they can make a decision without employer’s statement. She said that they’re too busy to send out all those letters. She said they’re working as fast as they can blah blah blah. She didn’t even know what a weekly certification was or where we go in the portal to change his address. It’s ridiculous! His claim is held up because of an issue that would clearly qualify him.

But [that issue] doesn’t matter because he lost his job before that due to misconduct (absenteeism). He was only at his most recent job for 2 or 3 weeks before they closed due to covid. So, he’s not going to qualify for regular UI and will qualify for PUA. However they still haven’t made decisions on his regular UI after five months!

[To get by financially, he] did do a few weeks covid testing with the national guard and is now working through a temp agency, but when he was unemployed and had no income my wife and I were supporting him which we cannot afford to do either. Like we are all hurting badly, and there are even more people out there who don’t have family to help them out.

Even if you have already posted your story in the comments on this blog, I urge you again to include your story here on this post. In this way, there will be a central location for all of these stories about the delays Wisconsin has wrought.

Update (21 Sept. 2020): Updated post title with “your stories here.”

Update (19 Oct. 2020): Fox6 has a great story from Department insiders themselves complaining about the delays: “Since the spring, DWD has hired hundreds of additional employees to help process unemployment claims. But claims specialists say the system itself has not fundamentally changed, allowing the backlog to continue.”

And, here is some tips and places for assistance for those losing hope right now.

Don’t despair
There is something else to say about these delays. Several comments on this blog over the past few weeks are comments of despair, no hope, and even thoughts of suicide. I know finances can be a mess after months and months of no income. As a kid, I moved three times in one six month period. At times, I have struggled for work as an adult, and I have made some terrible career choices at other points in my life.

But, life is always more than your finances. Despite all the pain of the moment, please keep the folks you love in mind right now. They matter. And, they will want you around after all of this current catastrophe has passed.

  • For help with your unemployment issue, contact your state representative or senator (use this link to find out who your state representative is).
  • IMPORTANT: If you have unpaid food, housing, or medical bills, tell the representative that and ask that your claim be expedited because of that financial emergency. Provide an initial determination number or hearing number if you have one. Do not talk about weeks at issue (that is the substance; before you can talk substance you need to explain the procedural status of your case).
  • You will also probably need to provide a social security number (last four digits at least), birth date, phone number, e-mail address, and your mailing address to your state representative.
  • Do NOT provide screen shots or discuss issues with the on-line portal (short answer: everything in the portal is pending until resolved; see this post for help with navigating the portal). Just tell the representative the problem you are having: I’m being denied benefits because DWD is looking into why I was laid off, why I quit a job in 2019, why I answered no on question X on my weekly claim, why I had just less work because of the pandemic and did not lose all work, etc. In most cases, there will be NO factual explanation for why your case is on hold or being denied because the Department itself has made a mistake in processing your claim.
  • If you do not know what the issue is holding up your claim, call either the regular unemployment assistance line at 414-435-7069 or 844-910-3661 or the PUA assistance line at 608-318-7100, depending on whether you have a regular unemployment or a PUA unemployment claim. You can get more information from these folks than from your portal. If there is nothing new, then there probably is nothing new. Claims and hearings processing are gummed up mightily, and all kinds of problems are popping up and leading to further delays.
  • Wait 4-5 days and then follow-up with the legislator about the status of your request to have your case expedited.
  • While waiting, call 211, the United Way help line for your county and ask about the emergency help you need.
  • If close to Madison, here is a link to programs that provide emergency financial assistance in small amounts (usually $25-$100) and housing help.
  • Finally, think about what happened in the past when government likewise tried to pretend economic problems and dire need did not exist.

Update (21 Oct. 2020): Fixed some of the formatting for the Oct. 19th update. Also, the Fox6 open record podcast has an episode on the unemployment chaos in the state that deserves a listen.

Update (2 Dec. 2020): Courtesy of Hawks Quindel and others, here are some additional resources:

Update (4 Dec. 2020): added Wisconsin Judicare.

Update (29 Jan. 2021): clarified the above advice about getting help from state legislators.

Update (6 Aug. 2021): why you should get vaccinated.

Statewide

  • Wisconsin Dep’t of Health Services ACCESS: On-line application for Wisconsin benefits and programs relating to Medicaid (and BadgerCare) coverage, paying for groceries (SNAP) and child care, and other issues. There is an application guide is available in English, Spanish, and numerous other languages at the ACCESS link.
  • St Vincent de Paul (find the location nearest to you): Food pantry, charitable pharmacy, clothing, furniture, bedding and household goods, housing programs, and storage programs.
  • Contact your local county Dep’t of Human Services for numerous support services for older adults, health care options, after school programs, support for disabled individuals, transportation assistance, and numerous other kinds of support.
  • Update (3 Feb. 2021): Finding AA meetings in Wisconsin
  • Update (10 March 2021): Rental Assistance Program beginning February 2021. Go to the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association website and then click on your county on the map to take advantage of this rental assistance program.

Dane County and Madison

  • Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin: Clothing center, community gardens, financial assistance, housing case management and assistance, Koats for Kids, serving area food pantries, gleaners perishable food recovery program, and FoodShare at the Farmers’ Market. Active in Jefferson and Waukesha counties as well.
  • Community Justice, Inc.: Non-profit law firm in which legal fees are proportional to your income. The legal services include family law, restraining orders, housing, including landlord/tenant issues, mental health, employment, discrimination, consumer fraud & scams, criminal, personal bankruptcy, SSDI, basic estate planning, defense litigation of personal injury, property damage, and consumer cases, small claims cases, insurance disputes.
  • Freedom Inc.: Numerous youth support programs as well as support programs for Hmong and Black adults and elders.
  • Homeless Services Consortium of Dane County: Housing Resource Line, coordinated intake, housing resource desk, family shelter (Salvation Army), single women’s shelter (Salvation Army), single men’s shelter (Porchlight), domestic abuse helpline (DAIS), and Youth Services Crisis Hotline (Briarpatch).
  • Neighborhood Law Clinic: UW Madison law school clinic where law students provide a broad range of legal services in rental housing, employment, and public benefits law.

North Central Wisconsin

Northern Wisconsin

  • Wisconsin Judicare: represents low income individuals for no fee in: unemployment appeals, evictions, foreclosures, some tax issues, and who are victims of domestic violence and elder abuse in the 33 northern counties and 11 federally recognized tribes.

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.

Unemployment benefit payments continue to decline

The Advisory Council met yesterday, September 17th, and much information was put forward, including current financial reports for the state’s unemployment system.

As noted previously, unemployment taxes are slated to decline. Next year, 2016, will see a reduced tax schedule for employers, as the reserve fund had $735.4 million at the end of July 2015 and should meet the requirements for a reduced tax schedule next year.

The most stunning news, however, is that benefit payments continue to decline markedly. The Department’s Financial Outlook Report released in April 2015 reported that “UI benefit payments in 2014 were the lowest since 2000.” See Report at 21. Now in September 2015, the Department reports that: “Benefit payments charged to the reserve Fund were $371.2 million through July compared to $445.4 million last year.” See UI Reserve Fund Highlights at 1. This level of benefit payments is “$90 million below what is expected” and “has not been seen in Wisconsin since the 1990s,” the treasurer for the state’s unemployment funds told council members. In support of this observation, the financial report included this graph on the last page.

ER taxes relative to total benefits paid

This chart shows that all benefits paid to claimants are taking a deep dive since the recession. Part of the decline is the end in 2010 of federal extended unemployment compensation benefits. But, if the end of those federal benefits told the whole story, then the decline in benefits should level off and possibly increase as employers go through cycles of hiring and layoffs. But, there has been no leveling off in Wisconsin. Rather, benefit payments continue falling off of a cliff. Keep in mind as well that these dollars are not adjusted for inflation or cost of living increases. So, this drop in benefit payments is even more devastating to claimants trying to pay rent and buy groceries than pictured here.

For why this decline in payments is occurring, the main reasons appear to be the Department’s efforts at charging concealment against claimants for their mistakes and the new substantial fault disqualification standard. See Why employer UI taxes are down: concealment and substantial fault. The Department is essentially making it harder for those losing their jobs to qualify for unemployment benefits. And, those that do qualify are increasingly facing concealment charges six to nine months after their claims have ended, forcing them to repay all benefits previously received, pay additional penalties for their mistakes mislabeled as concealment, and then forfeit years of future unemployment benefits as an additional penalty. In short, unemployment benefits do not really exist anymore for those who lose their jobs, and this outcome is by design.

What is concealment?

A bill is going forward for creating a seven year ban on benefits after two instances of concealment — aka two strikes and you’re out.

Basic matters in this debate turn on what exactly is concealment and how is concealment uncovered. A case on appeal to the Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC or Commission) illustrates how the Department of Workforce Development (DWD or Department) is handling these matters.

In this case, the claimant worked as event waitstaff for a hotel. He received an hourly wage around $4 per hour and a tip based on a percentage of the fee the customer paid for the event (those tips added anywhere from $50 to $300 to his weekly earnings). But, those tips went directly to the hotel, and so the claimant could not know the tip amount he earned until he received his bi-weekly check (and those tips were combined for the two-week pay period).

Unemployment benefit claims are filed on a weekly basis, however. Since he did not know what his tips were for each week, he called the Department to ask about how to file when he only knew his hourly wages. The Department representative told him the Department would get the weekly tips information from the employer when it completed its UCB-23 form about his weekly work for that employer. The difference between the hourly wages he reported and the total wages the employer reported would then be deducted from unemployment benefits in a subsequent week.

Such advice is certainly viable. The claimant does not know his weekly tips when filing, only the employer does. So, while there would be a week or two lag in what his correct benefit amount is, at least the corrected wage information from the employer would lead to corrected unemployment benefits.

But, in this claimant’s case, the employer never returned those weekly UCB-23 forms. And, for six years this happened. Not until the claimant took a second job and was discharged from that job did the Department finally act on the information that the claimant had not been reporting his weekly tips income (again, because he did not know that tips income when filing his weekly claims). The Department is charging this claimant with concealment for not reporting his tips income.

But, why did it take six years for the Department to act on this issue? First, Department representatives have discretion about when to note their advice to claimants. Naturally, when that advice is that there is no issue or problem as perceived by that Department representative, Department representatives usually do NOT note that there is NO issue with a claim filing. Only when there IS an issue will they usually note that something needs follow-up investigation in Department records.

Second, the Department could have seen a problem when the employer filed its quarterly unemployment tax returns. Those returns would have showed both the hourly wages and tips paid to the claimant. But, the Department does not check the accuracy of the claimant’s weekly reporting with those tax returns, except when those returns show wages being paid and the claimant has reported NO earnings from that employer. That is, the Department only compares a claimant’s weekly claim reporting to an employer’s unemployment tax reporting to determine if the claimant has failed to report any wages from the employer (moreover, the Department does not even make this comparison until six months later — aka the second quarterly tax return — for a claimant). Since the claimant in this case reported his hourly wages, no flags were raised despite the difference in what the employer reported on its quarterly tax returns.

NOTE: There are more timely ways to handle wage reporting discrepancies than relying on quarterly tax reports from employers. I have repeatedly suggested to the Department and the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council mechanisms for matching claimants’ wage reports to employers’ tax withholding data. See, e.g., Findings of the unemployment audit (January 2013 e-mail message to Lutfi Shahrani and Scott Sussman describing a withholding match in other states). Neither the Department nor the council has demonstrated any interest in such mechanisms.

Third, even if the employer had supplied the weekly UCB-23 forms, the Department’s currently practice is only to note those discrepancies and adjust future unemployment benefits for those discrepancies (i.e., as the Department representative told the claimant, the claimant’s future unemployment benefits would be adjusted for the tip income not reported on the weekly claim certification). No flags will be raised about either the amount or quantity of those discrepancies until a new, separate investigation into concealment is instituted at a much later date.

In all, these three factors demonstrate that the Department really has no way of catching on-going mistakes in weekly claim certification except through a concealment investigation that occurs months or years (or even six years in this case) after the problem started. Instead of addressing these institutional deficiencies, the Department makes the claimant responsible for any mistakes in his claim-filing. Here, even though the claimant did not know and could not know his weekly tips income when filing his weekly unemployment claims, the Department still considers him responsible for including that income in each weekly claim he made. And, it is his fault the Department took six years to figure out what was going on when it alleged concealment against him. His mistake constitutes concealment regardless of his intention, his confusion, his employer’s inaction, or the departmental advice he received.

The Commission, however, has required that concealment actually be intentional. See, e.g., LIRC responds to DWD’s concealment agenda. So, the Department and the Advisory Council now seek to change the definition of concealment to make it nothing more than mere mistake and to prevent claimants from contending they were confused, disabled in some way, or the recipient of bad departmental advice. See Concealment redefinition approved: Watch out claimants. With this new definition of concealment, claimants who make mere mistakes in their weekly claim filing will be subject to severe concealment penalties.

NOTE: To understand how severe concealment penalties are, consider this example. Suppose a claimant with a weekly benefit rate of $200 under reports part-time wages of $78 on a weekly claim instead of $87, a mistake of $9. So, instead of $167 in unemployment benefits that week, the claimant should have received only $161 in unemployment benefits, a difference of $6. When concealment is at issue, however, neither the $6 difference nor the $167 actually received is the amount at issue. Rather, the entire $200 potential weekly benefit must now be repaid for that week. Furthermore, there is now a 40% (15% prior to the new state budget) administrative penalty ($80 in this case) that also must be immediately repaid. And, future unemployment benefits ranging from two, four, or eight times the weekly benefit rate for each week/act of concealment will be lost to the claimant (in this case, $400 for the 2X penalty, or two weeks of no unemployment benefits received). Finally, keep in mind that this example is only for one week. In almost all concealment cases, the Department does not allege concealment until months or years have passed, and so the concealment — since it is usually based on an ongoing mistake — concerns dozens of weeks of unemployment benefits. The claimant who did not report his tips income for six years, for instance, is subject to a repayment demand of $32,000+ and forfeits $50,000+ in future unemployment benefits even though his weekly benefit rate hovered around $130.

Keep in mind, the Department has also been making it easier for claimants to make mistakes on their weekly claim filing through too numerous and too confusing questions for weekly claim filing, see Important and comprehensive concealment analysis from LIRC, new job search requirements that ignore basic mechanisms job hunters use to find work and create hidden traps for those at temp agencies, see numerous posts about job search requirements, and new job search verification protocols, see New job search verification requirement starting, that seem little more than one more mechanism for tripping claimants up.

In these circumstances, claimants should most likely avoid unemployment altogether. The risk of making a mistake and being charged for concealment because of that mistake at some future date for some unknown reason is too great. But, most claimants probably will not know about these new issues when the likelihood of being charged for concealment when making a simple mistake on their claim filing is high. So, the proposed bill which will actually ban claimants from receiving unemployment for seven years is a good thing: it keeps claimants away from a Department that does not have their interests at heart.