Why Haven't Thousands Of Wisconsinites Received Unemployment Relief?

May 28, 2020

More than half a million people in Wisconsin have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus outbreak, according to the latest figures from the Department of Workforce Development. But many have yet to get relief. The state has yet to pay 16% of claims.

Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Secretary Caleb Frostman says the backlog is due to the sheer volume of claims, shortage of staffing, and antiquated technology.

“Perhaps it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Our call systems were not built to handle 5.8 million calls a week, which is a 20,000% increase over last year's busiest week,” he said while testifying to the state Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform.

Republican Sen. Chris Kapenga pushed back. He says the technology, which uses a 50-year-old programming language called COBOL, isn't why there's a backlog of cases. He takes issue with criticism that held Republicans responsible for not updating the technology years ago.

“I need people to understand when they bring up these accusations about the Republicans being the bad guys here is, this is not that the backlog is not related to the COBOL processing batch. It's related to other things outside of that,” says Kapenga.

"Our call systems were not built to handle 5.8 million calls a week, which is a 20,000% increase over last year's busiest week." - Caleb Frostman

Kapenga says that staffing is the greater problem. He suggests using state employees outside the department to fulfill staffing needs.

“We have current state employees who are sitting here getting paid not to work. I think it's really important that we take existing state assets that are already being paid and use them to do the work that needs to get done,” said Kapenga.

However, Neeraj Kulkarni, chief information officer and IT director at DWD, says that staffing up the call center alone wouldn't mitigate or eliminate problems created by the technology.

“Phones will be open, but when they call in, the claims adjudicators or the claims processors can't get in and get, they cannot look at the system and make changes simultaneously because that would disrupt the payment calculations there,” said Kulkarni.

The technology requires time to update overnight, according to Kulkarni. If accessed prematurely, the system could render errors and risk distributing incorrect payments. 

Despite the challenges, Frostman is optimistic the Department of Workforce Development is making progress.

“With an increase in productivity and an influx of new adjudicators, we anticipate continued consistent reduction in our caseload,” he says.

Frostman asked the committee to upgrade the computer infrastructure, increase benefit rates, and permanently repeal a one-week waiting period before people can claim benefits. It’s unclear how the Senate Committee will move forward.

Editor's note: A portion of the audio is courtesy of WisconsinEye.

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