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.