State audit explains delays in Wisconsin unemployment

Veronica Hickstein (left) and Annie Serotini (right) describe their experiences with DWD to...
Veronica Hickstein (left) and Annie Serotini (right) describe their experiences with DWD to NBC15 News.(WMTV Elise Romas)
Published: Dec. 21, 2020 at 9:45 PM CST
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ROCK COUNTY, Wis. (WMTV) - Some of our neighbors are left jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people have had to wait months for their unemployment benefits.

A recent audit confirms exactly that.

The review off the state’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD) was released last week. It found more than 35,000 people have waited 21 days or longer for their claim to be resolved.

Since Mar. 15, the state has paid out $4.8 billion to more than 566,000 people, but there is still a backlog of people waiting for help.

NBC15 News asked the DWD for a one-on-one interview since Dec. 10. The communications team responded, saying they cannot accommodate interviews before the holidays and took some questions by email only.

Monday afternoon, the DWD responded and said they hope the backlog will be resolved in the next two weeks. However, that relief may not come soon enough for some.

“We didn’t ask for this,” Veronica Hickstein, Janesville mother of three said. “Our five-year-old has asthma, and she was hospitalized back in February for the flu and pneumonia, and strep throat, so as a mom, with this new virus, and I don’t know what could happen to her.”

Hickstein is looking for answers after quitting her job in May to take care of her three children and avoid high daycare costs. She applied for unemployment, and her claim was accepted in June, but was denied benefits in Sept.

“The whole point of this is that we’re supposed to do this together, and I feel like our government is not doing what they’re supposed to do,” Hickstein said.

A recent audit of the DWD looked at unemployment claims filed from Mar. 15 to Oct. 10.

It shows the agency took about five weeks to pay 25% of the claims from its regular unemployment program.

For claims put under investigation, called adjudication, the report shows that it took DWD more than 31 days to resolve issues with people who quit their jobs, and more than 75 days to resolve cases where people were fired.

There are currently 51,000 cases under investigation.

“Instead of going through all of these adjudication processes, or paying attention to all of these little details and laws, what’s right from wrong?” Hickstein said. “You know these people are struggling, we’re begging you, do what’s right.”

Hickstein was not the only one calling DWD looking for answers.

“There’s nowhere to turn,” Annie Serotini said. “I had to sell my truck two weeks ago, just because my landlord was asking for rent and I had to sell my car just to get him a little bit of money.”

Serotini is a mother of four from Beloit. She was fired in Oct. 2019 and began receiving unemployment benefits before the pandemic hit and that changed in March.

She had to wait roughly four months until receiving the Federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). Fast forward to the weekend of Dec. 19, Serotini finally received part of her payment under the extended benefit program, more than six months after program became available in Wisconsin.

“I know a lot of people are in the same boat. It’s just terrifying,” Serotini said.

In September, the former DWD Sec. Caleb Frostman resigned amid scrutiny of how unemployment claims were being processed.

Amy Pechacek from the Department of Corrections (DOC) stepped in to lead the department roughly four weeks later and assessed the current situation.

On Dec. 16, she testified in front of the State Legislative Audit Committee, noting from March to December, they’ve received 8.7 million weekly claims. That’s the total of weekly claims processed in the previous four years was 7.1 million.

“The fact that our technology is antiquated, and it took time to stand up and program for the five new federal programs through the CARES Act and through the federal government,” Pechacek said. “And of course, the delays in the system with inability to be efficient on our backend processes.”

Since taking over, Pechacek brought in additional contracted help, hired more people, and mandated four weeks of overtime. The DWD also recently partnered with google to expedite claims and reduce the backlog.

“There’s no reason that it should take 6, 7, 8 months for people,” Serotini said. “People are hurting, people are losing their houses and their cars and everything it’s not right.”

Despite those changes, those who have finally received payments or still waiting for their benefits feel betrayed by a system set up to help them in their time of need.

“While everybody’s celebrating the holidays, we can’t,” Hickstein said. “I feel like we’ve been lied to; I feel like we’ve been lied to so much and given hope but that hope feels like it’s so far away.”

NBC15 News also reached out to the DWD about Serotini and Hickstein’s issues. The agency responded and said it cannot comment on any cases specifically. People are asked to contact the DWD helpline about their claims.

The DWD is requesting Gov. Tony Evers to make room in his biennium budget for upgrades to their 60-year-old computing system.

Last week, they told lawmakers an estimated a system upgrade to cost somewhere between $40-$50 million, and that process could take multiple years to modernize the system.

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