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Head of DWD making ‘headway’ in reducing backlog of unemployment claims

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Unemployment claim form. File photo.

MADISON (WKOW) -- For the first since taking over the leadership position at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Interim Secretary Amy Pechacek is revealing changes the agency is taking to make some  ‘headway’ in reducing the backlog of unemployment claims. 

Amy Pechacek was selected by Gov. Tony Evers after he asked and received a resignation from former secretary Caleb Frostman, who was criticized for the department's backlog of processing claims during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Pechacek tells 27 News since taking over the position that a new partnership with Google analytics and hiring additional staff has helped get through tens of thousands of unemployment claims.

“We are pretty confident at this point that we're talking a resolution now in terms of weeks instead of months,” Pechacek said.

The goal is to have the backlog under control by the end of the year, Pechacek said. The agency is projected to process more than 100,000 claims in the next week. 

As of Nov. 25, more than 70,000 Wisconsinites are still waiting for a paycheck --  caught up in the backlog -- with more than 530,873 weekly claims still left to clear.

Since March 15, when the pandemic began and businesses were forced to close under Evers 'Safer at Home' order, DWD has received more than 8.2 million requests for unemployment benefits. 

DWD recently announced a partnership with Google that uses technology to process claims and issue payments more quickly, according to Pechacek. 

“We've increased our output over 4,000% with this new information we have in this partnership and we are working very hard and diligently to get through these remaining claims.”

Google is now sending that new data to the department and is part of the reason Pechacek said thousands of claims are being cleared from the backlog. 

Pechacek said she also hired, recruited and contracted with vendors to beef up staffing at the agency which now has more than 2,000 employees. She also ordered all employees mandatory overtime. Even with these efforts, Pechacek believes additional staff was not the reason for the backlog.

“It became very clear to me, people power was not going to solve this problem,” Pechacek said.

Another collaboration with Google is in the works that will upgrade systems to allow people to upload their documentation online instead of mailing or faxing information. It will also allow claimants to contact DWD staff electronically instead of a phone call. 

“I understand that this pandemic has been devastating to people, not only from sickness but to financial hardship and we are moving very quickly now and we hope to get through this.”

Progress on the Backlog

There are currently more than 70,000 Wisconsinites still waiting to see their unemployment check, 60,000 of those still need to speak to an adjudicator which means they've waited beyond the 21 days waiting period for DWD to make a decision to accept or deny their application.

One of those still waiting for a call is Paul Ingebrigtson of Lodi.

"I'm defiantly plowing through my savings right now, that's what I'm living on," he said.

Ingebrigtson said he's been waiting for over a month after applying for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment and DWD told him the hold up is that he needs to verify his identity.

"I'm really puzzled why it's been so long and I would think an adjudicator could settle this in 10 minutes over the phone," Ingebrigtson said.

Director Pechacek said the technology they are using now though, will results in more people hearing back from the agency and many will start to see some movement on their claim.

In the next few days, she said 103,000 holds on the backlog of claims will be taken care of which will provide payments to about 21,000 Wisconsinites who've waited weeks, some months for a payment.

Call Center, Outdated Systems

DWD’s call center is also improving after an audit revealed 93% of phone calls made to the agency for unemployment claims went unanswered during the first 3 ½ months. 

As of last week, Pechacek said 95% of the calls were answered immediately, the other 5% were left on a temporary hold then answered in less than two minutes.

The department is also dealing with outdated technology to process unemployment benefits. The software dates back to the 1950s, and runs through a mainframe from the 1970s. 

Pechacek realizes the system exacerbated their issues is hoping to work with lawmakers and governor during budget negotiations to provide funding to update the system. 

“We hope to do a full modernization on the system,” she said.

Republican lawmakers have blamed the Evers administration for the backlog and the outdated systems, which lawmakers for years knew the technology used was old.

Some Democrats want to overhaul the department such as permanently waiving the one-week waiting period for claimants to receive benefits and reducing the number of work searches someone must complete. Gov. Evers recently introduced a few bills to remove similar barriers that Pechacek says she on board with. 

“I think during this pandemic having a wait period for folks that really need these benefits to support their families and to further engage in the economy doesn't serve a huge purpose.”

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Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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