Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Unemployment audit shows Wisconsinites deserve better. Both WisGOP and Evers need to do better

Today featured a hearing at the state's Joint Audit Committee on how the Department of Workforce Development handled the huge jump in unemployment claims that came with the outbreak of COVID-19. Given that many Wisconsinites had to wait several weeks to receive their unemployment benefits, there was plenty for legislators (especially GOP legislators) to complain about.
Department of Workforce Development Transition Director Amy Pechacek sat before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, in regard to this week's audit and two others that probed the department's operations...

"It is clear to me that the operational challenges at UI (unemployment insurance) have grown over time," she said in a prepared statement. "While the dedicated staff were able to work around these issues during times of stability, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our state has exposed long-standing challenges that proved too much to overcome in the timeframe needed to best serve the people of Wisconsin."

Pechacek took over the DWD in late September after then-Secretary Caleb Frostman was fired by Gov. Tony Evers.

The audit this week found the department sent the majority of unemployment claims into adjudication, while they determined each applicant's eligibility. In most of those cases, the department either had the information needed to process the claim or failed to request it from the previous employer or the applicant themselves.
No, not good. And even though the LAB audit on unemployment claims says that the huge backlog that started in March has gone down, there are still people waiting weeks if not months for their funds, and some are appealing their denial of benefits.
We determined the average number of days that DWD took to pay initial claims for regular program benefits that individuals filed from the week of March 15, 2020, through the week of August 30, 2020. We excluded claims filed in subsequent weeks because it is likely that insufficient time had lapsed for DWD to pay a number of these claims. Our analysis includes only those claims that DWD had paid as of October 10, 2020. 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. DWD paid 53.2 percent of initial claims in two calendar weeks or less, but it took more than five weeks to pay 24.7 percent of these claims.

As shown in Figure 2, the average amount of time that DWD took to pay regular program benefits for initial claims filed in August 2020 was considerably less than the average amount of time it took to pay benefits for claims filed in March 2020. DWD took an average of 39.5 days to pay benefits for initial claims filed during the week of March 29, 2020, and an average of 8.5 days to pay benefits for initial claims filed during the week of August 30, 2020.
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….

DWD’s program adjudicators resolve claims placed into adjudication. To help resolve the large number of claims placed into adjudication beginning in mid-March 2020, DWD hired additional adjudicators, temporarily reassigned staff from other DWD divisions and other state agencies to work as adjudicators, and contracted with a firm to provide staff to work as adjudicators. As shown in Figure 3, the total number of adjudicators increased from 175 during the week of March 15, 2020, to 563 during the week of September 20, 2020.
While acknowledging the increased staff, LAB pointed directly at DWD as being at fault for why Wisconsin workers did not receive benefits in a timely manner. LAB looked at a sample of 268 Wisconsinites that filed their first claims in March or April 2020, but hadn't been paid as of late June. The LAB said that 250 of those cases had been resolved as of November, but that a lot of the reason for the delays were that DWD workers and officials didn't make decisions and act on unemployment claims when they had a chance to do so.
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....

DWD had not resolved issues even though it had the information to do so, and an average of 5.5 weeks elapsed for each such instance;
DWD had not requested information it needed from individuals, and an average of 6.5 weeks elapsed for each such instance; and
DWD had not requested information it needed from employers, and an average of 8.5 weeks elapsed for each such instance.
This gave legislative Republicans the opportunity to hammer on Governor Evers, as the guy ultimately in charge of state operations. For that last one, Bertie DAHHH-ling might not be the best authority on what was going on at DWD. But I digress. Part of the reason for the backlog is that there was a mountain of new unemployment claims that started to hit in March, and they are still quite a bit higher at the end of 2020 than what we had at the start of 2020.
And DWD did ultimately hire up, which helps explain the drop in the amount of time that it took for Wisconsinites to get benefits.
It's still not great, but it's helping. And let's be honest here - WisGOPs would never have accepted a large increase in DWD staffing or investment in technology until so many of their (white) constituents started to be put in dire straits because they couldn't get their benefits.

Of course, let’s not forget that as the unprecedented levels of claims were being filed online and followed up on via phone,and new programs like PUA and the 26+ week unemployment benefit package were getting rolled out, DWD was getting slammed with calls before they had the time to staff up to deal with all of these sudden demands. And they weren't getting much guidance given from the Feds, or time to carry them out.

While DWD and out-of-work Wisconsinites continued to struggle, the gerrymandered State Legislature didn’t lift a finger to actually try to pass anything that might remove barriers or speed the process along, and instead chose to go on an 8-month paid vacation. In fact, it was the WisGOPs who put numerous barriers in place to make applicants jump through hoops to get benefits and DWD staff have to do extra investigation and follow-up instead of merely handing the money out first and then checking back later if the details were sketchy and/or didn't add up.

That’s not to say that there weren’t serious lapses at DWD – it's not acceptable to wait that many weeks to get benefits, regardless of the situation. Once hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were getting laid off each week, getting the money out the door on routine cases should have become the first priority over wasting time on paperwork where boxes were checked as proof certain safeguards were made. It also illustrates the difficulty of having to put a number of specific circumstances into figuring out how it fits under a blanket of rules.

The buck ultimately stops with Evers, and while I think he has handled some parts of the response to the COVID recession very well (particularly in saving funds for later so that they could be used in Fall and Winter as the Feds dithered, and then giving aid to hard-hit industries like restaurants, hotels, and live music venues), keeping large numbers of Wisconsinites from benefits was a mess that needed to be mitigated sooner than it was.

But let's also admit that many of those delays were the direct result of WisGOPs putting in rules against unemployment "fraud" in a transparent racially-tinged attempt to stir up resentment among rubes. Which is why I found myself viscerally angry at the cheap shots being levied by dishonest WisGOPs today.

Because WisGOPs don't really care about fixing the problem, or in running government more efficiently or effectively. They just want to make Evers take the blame for the pain that their bad policies of the 2010s led to in 2020. And I don't expect them to put out any kind of solution in the next 2 years that will make things easier for laid-off Wisconsinites to get the benefits they are entitled to.

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