MADISON (WKOW) -- More than seven weeks after Governor Tony Evers and the Department of Health Services issued a ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people and closed dine-in restaurants and bars statewide, some laid-off workers remain unable to reach the Department of Workforce Development to file for unemployment insurance benefits.
Donald Gaulin of Richland Center said he had been trying to file even prior to the "safer at home" mandates. Due to a dispute with a previous employer involving workman's compensation, Gaulin said he could not simply file online and instead needed to discuss his situation with a claims adjuster.
"I gave them my number, I left a million messages," Gaulin said. "I've been trying a thousand times unsuccessful (sp.)"
A spokesman for the agency said Thursday DWD is continuing to shift employees from other DWD division to help process claims and is also bringing in state workers from other agencies to assist.
"This week, we are adding over 80 employees from within DWD right into our UI division," said DWD Communications Director Ben Jedd. "We're also bringing in 65 employees from other state agencies."
Jedd said the agency is also in the process of conducting interviews to hire 300 more employees to staff call centers. Jedd added that DWD signed a contract this week to outsource some of the processing work to a 600-person call center to take and return calls, as well as review and adjudicate claims.
Jedd added the agency was trying to fast-track the process of training staff but said there are limits to that as any claims adjuster needs to pass an FBI background check since they're accessing peoples' sensitive personal data like social security numbers.
Gaulin said he thinks the operation should have been scaled up to the point where no one would still be waiting for a response nearly two months after their first attempt to contact DWD.
"I have to get my unemployment so I can take care of my family," Gaulin said. "You know, begging people for food for my family is not right when you guys need to give me my unemployment."
Outdated technology part of the problem
Jedd said part of the issue people are having processing claims is the agency's use of ancient coding technology.
"We are developing three different federal programs using 50-year-old technology in a matter of six weeks so we're moving as fast as we can," Jedd said.
Jedd said the outdated coding system is delaying the state's response to enact the 13-week extension of benefits for displaced workers who have exhausted their benefits. He said the agency was working to re-code the system to waive the usual one-week waiting period and to incorporate the additional $600/week payment through the federal (FPUC) relief program.
As to why the state agency still uses technology from the 1970s to perform such a crucial aspect of its existence, Jedd cited cost.
"We do see (upgrading the system) as an important thing to do, especially in a situation like this but it's expensive," Jedd said. "It's definitely, on the low end, a $60 million project to do."