Wisconsin lawmakers question DWD secretary on unemployment insurance problems

MADISON, Wis. — State legislators are still pushing for answers as to why some people still haven’t been paid their unemployment benefits.

Lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulator y Reform invited an economist, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Department of Workforce Development Sec. Caleb Frostman to testify in a meeting that aimed to address the challenges with unemployment people are facing.

Economist Noah Williams, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, echoed the unprecedented circumstances facing the unemployment insurance office.

“Never in history have we seen such an immense change so rapidly in both scale and speed in changes in unemployment,” he said.

Last week the Department of Workforce Development released April unemployment data, showing the state went from around 3% unemployment to higher than 14% in a matter of weeks.

Williams estimated around 40% of the job loss is permanent.

Focus of the meeting largely centered around Frostman, as lawmakers grilled him as to why nearly a third of weekly claims are still unpaid and call center hours haven’t been expanded more.

“I think that’s where my frustration is, is we’re seeing bankers hours being put in on the phones, and we could easily, and should be having phones open 24/7,” said Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield.

Frostman and others from DWD explained outdated computer setups require the unemployment office switch to processing and troubleshooting claims outside of call hours. They also said the office required many more people to address the increased need for call, adjudication and processing staff, which they are bringing on, adding hundreds to what they said were lower-than-normal staff levels before the pandemic.

Unemployment Insurance Division Administrator Mark Reihl said under the circumstances, the office did the best it could.

“Frankly I think we’ve done a great job in this period of time,” Reihl said. “Is it as good as we would like? Certainly not because there are claimants out there who are suffering.”

Committee chairman Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, questioned why Gov. Tony Evers’ administration didn’t plan for increased demand for unemployment insurance before rolling out the Safer at Home order.

“Didn’t anybody think, what if we get to 10 percent?” Nass said. “Everything is going to be shut down. People are going to be laid off.”

Democrats and Republicans argued during the meeting over whether unemployment reform during former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration was to blame at all for delays in people receiving benefits.

Frostman didn’t blame just one thing or one party, but he encouraged lawmakers to make changes once they can so this doesn’t happen again.

“Whether in times of budget constraints or historically low unemployment, it’s never convenient to make a large investment in this program,” he said. “But now we’ve seen the consequences of deferred action. Let’s make sure our system is prepared for the next time Wisconsinites need access to the economic lifeline of unemployment insurance.”

Frostman said getting all claims paid is the No. 1 aim of the unemployment office right now, but he said it could be August or October before the office is fully caught up and paying claims as quickly as they once did.