As Wisconsinites return to work, some pandemic unemployment claims dating back months remain unpaid

When the pandemic first hit Wisconsin and shut down schools fifteen months ago, Emily Wheeler of Waunakee didn’t have long to make a decision about her job. Her daughter Olivia, on the autism spectrum, now needed full-time adult care. Emily quit her job to provide it.

“I needed to stay home with her. That was the only option,” Emily explained. Before, she’d only worked during school hours.

She filed for regular unemployment–and was later told she would qualify instead for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, the federal program implemented in the first CARES Act for people who aren’t normally eligible for unemployment benefits: the self-employed, contractors, and those who could no longer work for reasons created by the pandemic.

Filing for PUA in May, she remained jobless for the rest of the year–and into 2021, until Olivia was able to safely return to school in April. By then, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development said they’d cleared their backlog of regular unemployment claims and resolved many of the issues that had contributed to headline after headline touting delays and unpaid claims throughout the year.

Emily, however, wasn’t having any luck. She and her husband had hit January before any movement on the PUA claim, when the DWD released eleven weeks of payments. But that left dozens still unpaid, and the couple was told it would just be a brief delay until the rest came. It didn’t.

Meanwhile, bills that were normally covered by Emily’s job piled up, many of which were related to special education expenses for Olivia. They’re in an unnamed amount of credit card debt as a result, Olivia’s husband Bryan explained. And weeks of benefits due them, as of two days ago, still weren’t paid.

They said they got the runaround from the DWD since then. First, they were told the adjudicator was working on the claim. They tried calling the adjudicator’s number–a lot–without results. Then, they were told no one had been assigned or even looked at the claim since January. Some people answering the phone said they were caught up on claims and theirs would be coming soon; others said they were still behind.

With loads of conflicting and confusing information, the Wheelers gave up and contacted News 3 Investigates. Within a day of reaching out to the DWD with questions, the claim was paid in full–but the DWD didn’t grant an interview to explain why the claims took so long or why the Wheelers were given so many pieces of conflicting information.

Eligibility for pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA)

Pandemic unemployment assistance was a program created by Congress in March 2020 to provide unemployment benefits for people who aren’t typically eligible, like the self-employed and contractors. Through subsequent bills, people can get a total of up to 79 weeks of PUA benefits paid out.

Emily fell into a group of people who are eligible for unemployment because they had to leave work for COVID-related reasons, in this case to care for her daughter with special needs who was no longer at school because of the pandemic.

The program is targeted for people who traditionally wouldn’t be able to receive unemployment, like the self-employed or contractors, but also people who had to quit jobs because of COVID. PUA eligibility extends to people who are primary caregivers for children who couldn’t attend school during the pandemic, leaving parents unable to continue working while also caring for their child.

The program expanded in February after the third Congressional COVID bill, this time to include workers who didn’t return to jobs because of COVID safety concerns, school employees fully or partially out of work because of scheduling changes or partial closures, and people whose hours were reduced or laid off.

The earliest available data on unemployment claims of all kinds waiting on adjudication in Wisconsin was just shy of 7,000, for the week ending on June 5. The state has paid out almost $3.5 million in PUA benefits since the start of the pandemic.

While Wisconsin’s regular unemployment system suffered crippling backlogs throughout the pandemic that have since largely been fixed, implementation of pandemic unemployment claims was at times worse. Claims couldn’t be processed through the regular system, meaning all of them needed an adjudicator assigned–leading to particularly severe backlogs over the past year.

In the second federal bill passed in December, Congress allowed for another 11-week extension of the benefit, which Wisconsin did not pay out for months. (Last year, the first of more than 80,000 PUA applicants in Wisconsin waited till late May before they started seeing payouts.) Applicants who had exhausted the first round of pandemic unemployment help ultimately waited until March before Wisconsin started paying out the extension.

Meanwhile, new and continued claims continue. In the first week of June, 818 people filed for initial PUA assistance and another 29,826 filed a continued weekly claim.

For the Wheelers, they’re looking for resolutions not just for themselves, but others that might be in the same boat–and for clearer communication from the DWD.

“I don’t know what’s being told to me if it’s true, false,” Emily explained.

The News 3 Investigates team can be reached at news3investigates@wisctv.com