Fewer people are waiting on unemployment, but wait times remain lengthy

Posted at 8:51 AM, Jun 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-17 23:34:07-04

On June 15 last year, 151,000 unemployment claims remained unpaid, waiting to be processed by the Department of Workforce Development, which collapsed under the pressure of the early stages of the pandemic.

In June 2021, the number of people waiting for benefits has shrunk considerably, but those left still waiting are experiencing lengthy wait times, and feel as if they've been left behind.

Cory Cross in Sawyer County was furloughed in the early days of the pandemic last year and is still on furlough today. He was able to receive some benefits, but in April they stopped.

"I call every pretty much every week and, if not a couple of times a week to see where that I get the same response," Cross said. "It's not in our hands."

His claims are now in adjudication awaiting a DWD staff member to determine his eligibility.

"At first, you know it was all right, but now, after two months, you know bills add up fast," Cross said.

The unprecedented number of those awaiting adjudication has decreased from last year. According to DWD weekly snapshot data, in 2021 the number of adjudication issues pending was down around 2,000 in March. But it spiked back up in April and May, with a peak of 8,553 issues as of April 17. It's dropped back to 2,646 issues as of June 5.

The DWD does not clarify how many people are affected by the total number of adjudication issues in its snapshot data.

The wait times on those issues spiked in early May as well, with an average wait time of just under 20 days on May 1. It's currently at just over 15 days as of June 5.

"They said pretty much hurry up and wait, is basically the best answer I got back," Cross said.

There's a long wait for those who felt they were unfairly denied benefits as well.

The average wait time is 69 days according to DWD data, and the backlog of appeals cases has stalled at about 12,000 for the last six weeks.

It's become frustrating for Victor Forberger, a Wisconsin labor attorney that represents those fighting unemployment denials.

"Everything seems to be crisis mode still with unemployment because of these delays these problems," Forberger said.

Forberger says delays are spilling over into the Labor and Industry Review Board, which hears appeals beyond the DWD administrative law judges.

A Milwaukee tutor named Jennifer is currently waiting for a decision from the LIRB on her appeal. Jennifer asked we only use her first name for privacy reasons.

"Someone else after I had applied got a hold of my social security number and name and date of birth and applied again in California," Jennifer said.

Jennifer started the appeals process at the start of the year. She had two hearings that went her way, but she's waiting on the LIRB to decide on a third.

"Everything at every step of the way in anything unemployment-related, it's all a huge mess and confusing and you just feel like you know you're in you know limbo," she said.

Facing eviction, Forberger is representing Jennifer. He was able to get her an emergency hearing this week. Even if the decision goes her way, benefits will make it to her bank account in a matter of days before her eviction deadline.

"Pre-pandemic, that would have been a 30-day, easily, decision," Forberger said.

Forberger was able to get Jennifer a hearing with the LIRB this week.

Meanwhile, Cross is still waiting to be called back from furlough.

"I currently have a job, but I can go back to my job until they call me back," he said.

The Department of Workforce Development did not go on camera for an interview but answered some questions via email. A spokesperson tells us they expect to be caught up scheduling appeals by the end of the summer, noting it took two years to do that after the 2008 recession. They've also added 39 administrative law judges to handle appeals cases from Dec. 7, 2020, to March 29 of this year.

The spokesperson also says policy changes, as well as an overhaul of the state's claims processing system, are needed to allow the department to be more flexible to implement and update programs in the future and avoid lengthy adjudication periods.

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