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Economy & Business

Audit Highlights Woes At Wisconsin Unemployment Call Centers

An audit of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development showed the agency's call centers were handling less than 1% of calls seeking unemployment benefits from March to June.

Fewer than 1% of calls from Wisconsin residents seeking unemployment benefits amid the early months of the coronavirus pandemic got answered as newly jobless workers were unable to get through to call centers, an audit released Friday shows.

The analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found that 93.3% of the 41 million calls to the state Department of Workforce Development unemployment call centers between March 15 and June 30 were blocked, or callers received busy signals. About 6% of callers hung up before reaching anyone and only 0.5% of calls were ultimately answered.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the audit backed up complaints that the newspaper has heard from hundreds of people who tried to get benefits after losing work because of the pandemic.

The report was released a week after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers obtained the agency chief's resignation over lack of progress in clearing claims from more than 90,000 people.

The report also shows that the agency did not provide data on the full scope of the problem to lawmakers on the Legislature's Joint Audit Committee. Between April and June, the agency reported to Republican committee co-chairs Sen. Rob Cowles and Rep. Samantha Kerkman that 4.9 million telephone calls were “blocked, abandoned, and answered.” But auditors found that 19.6 million calls were actually blocked or resulted in busy signals.

“That’s the piece that is most troubling,” Cowles, of Green Bay, told the newspaper.

The auditors recommended that the agency provide the full data in its weekly reports.

Rob Cherry, the agency's deputy secretary, who has been running the department since Evers got former Secretary Caleb Frostman's resignation on Sept. 18, said the misstep resulted from the agency adopting the call centers' software’s definition of blocked calls, which did not include busy signals.

Cherry wrote in the agency's official response that the department's outdated system was ill-equipped to handle the unprecedented surge of unemployment claims.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Evers' administration failed “during the most critical and desperate time facing Wisconsin citizens.”

The governor's office did not immediately issue a response to the report.

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