‘I called and called and called’: Those seeking unemployment benefits frustrated at office, more help to come

MADISON, Wis. — New numbers out Thursday showed a record 6.6 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week across the country.

In Wisconsin, the Department of Workforce Development is getting more than a hundred calls a second, leading to frustration among those hoping to get benefits, such as Brenda Quade, who has been out of her job in retail for more than two weeks.

“After watching the news and stuff like that I was like, well it’s going to be a little longer than I thought it was going to be as far as being off work,” she said.

Quade said her boss in Janesville gave employees two weeks’ pay despite having to close. After that was up, she decided to file an unemployment claim through the state, going online first like she was told. Then it told her to call.

“I called, and called, and called and called,” she said. “I think probably 750 times between probably four days.”

The state Department of Workforce Development said last week, more than 115,000 new applications for unemployment benefits were filed.

“The effects on our economy happened so quickly and so significantly that this really has been a shock to the system for a lot of people,” said department Sec. Caleb Frostman.

Frostman said the department has nearly doubled the amount of people to help with calls, but he wants those seeking benefits to file claims online first. A change to the system on Friday should prompt staff to call applicants instead of the other way around, the way it has been running.

Once the department can bring on about 80 more people, the department said it should be able to service faster.

Quade is offering a two-for-one.

“I would be willing to work for the state temporarily until they call me back to work,” she said. “Just let me talk to somebody first. You don’t have to pay me unemployment.”

Frostman said a change that would help the department would be a repeal of the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits. A bill that would do that awaits action in the state legislature.

State Democrats sent a letter to top Republicans on Wednesday urging them to hold a session of the legislature immediately.

“The people of Wisconsin want to see their state elected officials working together to do everything possible to manage this public health crisis and provide the support for those whose lives have been negatively impacted by this crisis,” they wrote.

A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said legislative leadership is working on a way to hold the session safely.

While Quade is frustrated at what’s going on with the unemployment office, she said she’s lucky her husband is still collecting a check, and that keeps her looking on the bright side.

“Just know there’s going to be a brighter day,” she said. “You just have to go through the rough patches in order to get the smooth sailings.”