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.

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.

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.