Lawmakers question auditors, DWD on unemployment delays, ‘We felt the pain in a major way’

MADISON, Wis. — Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites are still waiting for an answer on unemployment, even as lawmakers dug deeper into a report aimed at shining light on some of the issues.

Legislators on the Legislative Joint Audit Committee got a chance to get to the bottom of the delay at a hearing of the committee Wednesday, hearing from the auditors and leaders at the Department of Workforce Development.

“All of us as legislators have been besieged literally by thousands of phone calls from constituents, many of them friends, and we felt the pain in a major way,” said Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay and co-chair of the committee.

While more than 41,000 Wisconsinites wait for any response to their unemployment filing, the audit out this week shows nearly 1 in four applicants from March to October were in that situation for five or more weeks.

“The sad truth of the details that are exposed in this professional audit aren’t really a surprise to most of us because we’ve heard all that from these calls,” said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam. “This statistically significant random sampling confirms what we were hearing from constituents over and over again.”

Legislators asked the authors of the report about their findings and what they could do to improve it. The auditors and DWD staff brought up places worth a closer look, such as an adjudication process that may be especially difficult and time consuming for those who quit their jobs.

Brett Blaske can attest to that.

“When our business reopened I made the choice that I didn’t think it was safe for me and my domestic partner to return to work because they could not guarantee my safety,” the Madisonian said.

Based on his reading of the DWD site, he qualifies, but he’s still waiting on an answer.

He filed in June, got an adjudicator on the phone in September, but since then all calls have gone to voicemail.

“He has never called me back to this day,” Blaske said.

Now he waits while his savings runs low.

He said his frustration is not even about the money but communication.

“I really think if people were able to see a progress bar or something like that to give them an idea of what the timing might be, that would be very helpful,” Blaske said.

During the hearing and since, lawmakers have continued to blame their colleagues across the aisle for the delay. Republicans say its poor leadership from the governor; Democrats say its Republican reforms or inaction.

DWD says the main reason it’s taken so long is because of the massive influx of claims during the pandemic, essentially forcing 4 years of claims into 9 months.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article falsely reported the number of people waiting for answers on their claim as more than 368,000. That number reflects the number of claims awaiting resolution. The article has been updated to reflect the accurate number.