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Group helping people navigate through unemployment nightmares stretched thin

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MADISON (WKOW) -- The latest data from Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development shows that more than 350,000 people are still waiting for their unemployment claims to be processed -- and even more have already been denied.

Helping them is a task the Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic is taking on -- and has done for the past three decades.

"When I entered law school, it was sort of the depths of the last recession," said supervising attorney Art Kerwin. "And frankly, I thought it was going to be unprecedented at that time."

The clinic is a group of mostly volunteer attorneys and law students, unaffiliated with DWD, helping people navigate unemployment nightmares.

They've mostly helped people in-person out of a room in the Madison Labor Temple, but since the pandemic they've been on Zoom -- which has dramatically increased the number of people they're serving at a time when help is most needed.

"Since April, we have talked to more than 500 claimants," said student manager Emma Woods. "That's more than the past four years combined."

Woods says the work is crucial -- especially now.

"People who are dealing with unemployment issues in Wisconsin need help," she said. "It's an incredibly opaque system. Structurally, there are huge issues. And I think anyone working in unemployment previous to this could have said, 'If there is another recession, the system right now can't keep up.'"

Managing attorney Laura Monroe says as the pandemic has worn on, their workload has only increased.

"Right now, we're starting to see those denials coming through," she said. "We're starting to see overpayments coming through -- the people who were initially granted unemployment and then the department has changed their mind for whatever reason and now wants that person... to pay that money back."

For more than 30 years, the clinic has survived thanks to small grants -- but now they need more help to keep up with the demand and quickly changing laws.

They've launched a GoFundMe with a goal of raising $5,000.

"Our hope is that we can manage the rest of this crisis and frankly be a little better prepared for the next one," Kerwin said.

Right now, the waitlist to get help from the clinic is booked out for weeks -- but anyone who needs help can get connected through the United Way by calling 211.

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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