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Lawmakers question DWD Secretary about delays in processing unemployment benefits

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MADISON (WKOW) -- The head of Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development said the state will be able to more quickly mail out $600 weekly unemployment benefits paid for with federal money now that a new system is in place.

During Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform, DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman acknowledged Wisconsin was the last state in the union start paying out the CARES Act benefits.

Republican lawmakers pressed Frostman for answers during the hearing; they have said Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration failed to move fast enough in staffing up the DWD's unemployment processing efforts knowing the "safer at home" order would put people out of work.

"It's slow in coming and people are in a crisis financially and mentally," said Sen. Steve Nass (R - Whitewater.) "So I can go on about this if you would like."

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate hit 14.1% in April and there is a backlog in processing claims. Frostman said the main problems are an outdated tech infrastructure and that it simply takes time to complete the hiring process for people who will be accessing claimants' personal information.

"Those hires have to pass a rigorous background screening, including for some positions, a fingerprint screening," Frostman said.

Data released Wednesday by the DWD included unemployment rates broken up by county. While rates hovered between two and three percent in March, the April numbers reflect the skyrocketing unemployment across the state. In the southwestern counties, unemployment rates ranged between 11 and 18 percent.

Republican lawmakers said the volume of claims was no excuse for people waiting months to receive their benefits.

"I am completely confused as to why someone who filed for unemployment insurance eight weeks ago has not had their data put into a batch to be processed by COBOL," said Sen. Chris Kapenga (R - Delafield.)

Frostman said part of the holdup is DWD needing to review more information on applications people have submitted because of extra requirements and hurdles added to the unemployment process by Republicans during the Walker administration.

"A lot of the changes that have occurred have made it lower chance of recipiency but also far more confusing for claimants to know if they should apply, let alone get approved," Frostman said.

Evers addressed the concerns on a media call Wednesday, offering a vague claim about the Walker administration failed to act knowing the system was in need of updates.

"To anticipate something like this, I know Governor Walker, my predecessor, the state government did an analysis sometime during his terms in office and recommendations were made from that and apparently, to my knowledge, weren't followed through on," Evers said.

While Republicans have said nothing stopped the Evers administration and DWD from adding staff once it knew it would be implementing the "safer at home" order, the DWD countered that Republican legislators cost the state $25 million in March by not going into session earlier to waive the one-week waiting period before Congress passed the CARES Act.

"We are not alone in this problem across the country but that doesn't make it any easier for those waiting," Evers said.

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