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Woman questions why pandemic unemployment aid was cut off

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JANESVILLE (WKOW) -- Veronica Hickstein did not think opting to keep her children, including a high-risk daughter, at home for virtual learning would come at the expense of her unemployment benefits. Hickstein said Wednesday she was still awaiting an answer from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development about when a decision would come on her appeal.

The Janesville woman initially quit her job at a Kwik Trip store in the spring to watch her kids at home when school closed. She said she was especially adamant about staying home with her kids because of her five-year-old daughter who has asthma.

"She was just hospitalized at the beginning of this year (with pneumonia)," Hickstein said.

Her application for regular unemployment was denied, as Hickstein said she feared, because she left the job voluntarily.

She said she was still frustrated by the process because, despite applying in the spring, she did not get that initial rejection until late this summer.

"I didn't actually hear anything back from them until about September," Hickstein said.

However, Hickstein said she learned from a DWD adjudicator she could apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a temporary federal program designed to help people who do not qualify for regular unemployment benefits.

The program includes a number of exceptions for people, including circumstances where the applicant was out of work because they contracted COVID-19, someone else in their home had the disease, they were about to start a job when the pandemic hit, or they had to stay home with their kids because their school had closed.

Because her kids' school closed in the spring, Hickstein qualified for PUA aid -- at least for those spring months.

"Within about two weeks (of applying), I got some type of money," Hickstein said. "I'd gotten about $4,000."

Hickstein said she expected the PUA payments to continue in the fall, when she opted for her kids to do virtual learning out of concerns about minimizing her daughter's exposure.

The exceptions that qualify people for PUA do not include people voluntarily keeping their kids out of school. Hickstein said she has appealed the decision to not continue those benefits.

"I don't think it's worth the risk," Hickstein said. "And I almost feel like we're being punished for it."

Ben Jedd, a spokesperson for the DWD, confirmed Hickstein had a case pending appeal but said because it was under appeal, the agency could not provide further comment.

While the agency said Wednesday it has now processed nearly 94 percent of the 8.38 million weekly unemployment claims it has received, that figure includes people like Hickstein, whose case has technically been processed but is still waiting for a final answer.

She said if her latest appeal is rejected, she would find a way to adapt but would like certainty first and wished it had come by now.

"I've been waiting since October 24 to even get a date for an appeal," Hickstein said.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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