Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Today's audit question- how do you keep Wisconsinites from their benefits?

Another day, another audit from the Legislative Audit Bureau. This one was organized after complaints that Wisconsinites were facing barriers in filing unemployment claims with the state’s Department of Workforce Development. Turns out that they had good reason to complain, as a large amount of people looking to contact DWD by phone in order to receive their benefits weren’t able to get through, and found themselves kicked out of the state’s automated phone system.
DWD indicated that it typically limited the size of the queues in order to minimize wait times. If more calls were received than available spots in a queue, some calls were blocked from entering the queue, and the individuals were instructed to call again later. In FY 2013-14, almost 1.7 million calls to the call centers, or 60.2 percent of the total, were blocked because a queue was full.

Call volumes were high from December 2013 through January 2014, compared to other times in FY 2013-14. During that two-month period, individuals made an average of 93,000 calls per week to the telephone line for initial claims. During other months in the fiscal year, individuals made an average of less than 10,000 calls per week to that telephone line.

The percentage of telephone calls blocked because a queue was full varied considerably during certain months in FY 2013-14, as shown in Figure 1. From December 2013 through January 2014, more than 80.0 percent of the 836,700 calls to the telephone line for initial claims were blocked. In contrast, less than 10.0 percent of the 155,500 calls from February through June 2014 were blocked.
December and January are typically the highest months for unemployment claims in Wisconsin, due to colder weather ending seasonal work and holiday-related layoffs, but having more than 4 out of 5 calls not even get through is absurd. And the report goes on to note that the Fiscal Year 2013-14 had a much higher rate of rejection than the two years before it, despite a larger amount of unemployment claims being reported in those prior years.

Total initial claims filed, Wisconsin
FY 2011-12 945,400
FY 2012-13 792,300
FY 2013-14 520,100

“Kickout” rate, DWD unemployment benefits
FY 2011-12 43.5%
FY 2012-13 41.8%
FY 2013-14 60.2%

It sure makes you wonder if some of that 34.4% drop in initial claims for 2013-14 might be related to these phone issues, though the Obama Jobs Recovery picking up steam also played a role in bringing those numbers down. Quite convenient that the drop happened ahead of the 2014 elections, didn’t it? (As Fox News would say, “I’m just throwing it out there!”)

It is mentioned in the audit that DWD has taken action in recent months to increase the ability to file unemployment claims online and to allow individuals to obtain their benefits information, and that more temporary employees are to be hired for the peak benefit season that occurs this time of the year. And since those changes started over the last two months, there has been a noticeable early uptick in the number of new unemployment claims filed in the state (as pointed out in this post from last week).

But the lack of capacity that led to all these kickouts on the DWD phone line calls to mind another LAB report from last week, where they reported the Government Accountability Board could not carry out its duties due to understaffing and a related lack of resources. As State Sen. (and Joint Legislative Audit Committee member) Kathleen Vinehout notes, this seems to be a trend in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, where an agency’s ability to do its job often goes by the wayside as a result of budget-cutting and “efficiency” moves.
Problems must be corrected. The agency response to the audit sets out details on how to do this. Some agency failures happened before 2011. Clearly tight budgets and tough workloads are not the only explanation.

But lawmakers can’t starve the agency, load it with additional work, and then complain staff isn’t doing the job fast enough.

If Wisconsin wants clean elections, transparent campaigns and lobbying and ethics among elected officials, the state must provide the GAB with adequate resources to do the job.
It is instructive to note that the Republican chairs of the Audit Committee (Sen. Rob Cowles and Rep. Samantha Kerkman) put out a release today that was supportive of the DWD’s attempts to improve its services and are taking a wait-and-see approach on how they pan out. This is in marked contrast to the WisGOP/right-wing media machine’s drumbeat to denigrate and blow up the GAB, and stack it with more GOP hacks to allow “decisions to be made.” Funny how the remedy tends to change depending on whether or not the GOP is in charge of the agency, isn’t it?

It proves yet again that Republicans think the biggest role of government is not to protect the common good, but instead to use the resources of government to grab more money for themselves and their campaign contributors, and to be utilized government as a mechanism to grab more power and control.


  1. When I read your graphs that showed how Wisconsin is lagging the nation in job growth, I was struck by the fact that the national trend showed a steady rise, but the Wisconsin line was up and down like a yo-yo. I knew that Walker made it difficult for people to file for unemployment benefits at various times in the past (probably to manipulate the jobs numbers to his benefit) - do you think that accounts for the yo-yo effect?

    1. Zeker - Thanks for responding. It's not unusual for jobs numbers in a state to jump around from month to month vs the country as a whole. Smaller sample size, weather, related factors cause more variance in a smaller place like Wisconsin.

      I'll also add that unemployment CLAIMS are a different deal than non-farm payrolls/ unemployment rate. Payrolls measure whether you are /are not working, and just because you didn't file a claim (or didn't get through on the phone), that person would still count as "not employed" when we talk about jobs numbers.

  2. Jake, off topic, but heads up.

    Attention everyone. Special election bomb just dropped. Who do the Democrats have for the district? Circulation of nomination papers started yesterday and ends Jan. 6, 2015.


    Governor Scott Walker Announces Special Election for 20th Senate District
    Tuesday, December 16, 2014 – Press Release

    Madison – Governor Scott Walker today announced a special election for the 20th State Senate District. The following is a timeline for the special election:

    December 16, 2014 – Circulation of Nomination Papers Begins
    January 6, 2015 – Circulation of Nomination Papers Ends
    February 17, 2015 – Primary Election (If Necessary)
    April 7, 2015 – Spring Election
    The special election follows the resignation of Senator Glenn Grothman (R–Campbellsport). Senator Grothman’s resignation will become effective on January 3, 2015.

  3. I don't think we are yet to the bottom of the barrel with Walker and companies destruction of our state. Truly horrible!!

  4. Funny, you missed the whole part about long term unemployment benefits ending on Dec 13, 2013. Think that could have had an impact?

  5. Funny, I was talking about The drop in INITIAL jobless claims, which have nothing to do with cutting people off of unemployment after 26 weeks of benefits.

    Maybe the cutoff led to slightly more phone calls in general, which is something the Walker Admin should have prepared for (but clearly did not). But the reduction of time someone could get benefits wouldn't affect the amount of first-time claims.