MADISON (WKOW) -- Officials from Wisconsin's workforce agency said Thursday the state's unemployment rate is the highest it's been since the Great Depression. Amid the staggering jobless claims, state residents still report waiting several weeks to receive unemployment insurance benefits, if they receive them at all.
The data released Thursday show Wisconsin's unemployment rate rising from 3.1% in March to 14.1% in April. The rate in March remained low because it was based on a survey taken around March 12, before Governor Tony Evers issued the "Safer At Home" order.
In the April report, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development reported a loss of 439,400 total non-farm jobs, 385,000 of which were in the private sector.
One of those jobs belonged to Madison accountant Heather Pettenger.
"I contacted the DWD's hotline hundreds of times," Pettenger said. "Most of the time, the number was busy or if you were able to actually get through, it would give you a message saying something to the effect of 'all of our representatives are with people, we can't even keep you on hold' and the call would disconnect."
Unlike many who have been unable to file their applications for unemployment benefits online, Pettenger was able to submit hers through the DWD website. However, she said her problems began when checking the status of the claim.
"For the entire time I was waiting for the determination, it was just stuck in a pending status," Pettenger said.
Pettenger said her claims kept showing up as "pending" until a recent check revealed it had become "expired." Frustrated, Pettenger said she reached out to the office of Sen. Fred Risser (D - Madison). Within days of following up with Risser's office, Pettenger said she received the two-and-a-half weeks' worth of claims for which she had filed, including the $600 per week federal assistance. The money came seven weeks after her initial filing.
"I'm not sure what happened there," said Emily Savard, a DWD policy analyst. "I would need to take a look at that specific claim to be able to see."
According to the DWD, it has received 549,147 applications for unemployment benefits. Within those applications, DWD has received a total of 2.12 million weekly claims and has paid out 1.45 million of them. That leaves a little more than 675,000 weekly claims still unpaid.
Savard said manually verifying any claims can be time-consuming as claims adjudicators confirm the layoff with employers.
"We need to adhere to all state, federal laws and rules and policies," Savard said. "It's not a situation where someone files a claim and we say 'OK no problem, we need to give you this money immediately' because we are instructed and it's enforced, especially by the Department of Labor in federal government that we need to adhere proper procedures and rules before paying."
While Pettenger said she's relieved to have gotten her unemployment benefits and is now back to work, she's still frustrated over having to rely on a credit card to cover living expenses for a month. Pettenger added she feels a bit guilty knowing many other people still have not been able to submit their claims or are still waiting for DWD to pay theirs out.
"There are some folks I know who are relying on food banks and they're relying on local resources to help them get through daily life," Pettenger said. "It shouldn't be that way because this money is earmarked for people like us who are unemployed. It's just not OK."
DWD still ramping up efforts
Savard said DWD has brought in a total of about 1,300 new staff to help with the processing of claims. That includes a call center operated by an outside vendor who has a contract with DWD; Savard said the call center went live on Wednesday.
DWD is also expanding the hours during which people can call to finish submitting claims. Previously, the lines were open between 7:30 am and 3:30 pm; Savard said the lines will now be open from 7 am to 5 pm but warned it may take a few days for the call operation to run at full strength.
The DWD website now asks people to call within a reserved window based on their last initial.
"We had known that we had this influx of callers and influx of people who applied for unemployment benefits at once and knew it would be a challenge for us to pay out benefits as quickly as we would like considering people need it at this point for their livelihood," Savard said.