Republicans call on Evers administration to fix unemployment issues, Democrats say years of Republican reform to blame

MADISON, Wis. — Republicans in the state legislature want Gov. Tony Evers to fix problems with the state’s unemployment insurance office.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said his office is getting hundreds of calls a week from people sick of picking up the phone. He said it is by far the No. 1 issue about which constituents will call.

“It started off with I think people were patient, but now it’s gotten to a point of serious frustration, and even I’ve had constituents calling in tears because they have to pay the bills, they have to feed their kids,” he said.

In a release Monday, the Department of Workforce Development said 1.4 million of the 2.1 million weekly claims had been paid, leaving more than 675,000, or nearly a third of all weekly filers, with an unpaid claim.

Now Nygren and his office are trying to through to the governor to fix it, sending news release after news release and tweet after tweet.

“I’ve been a little bit more engaged and heated over the last few days because what do I tell my constituents?” Nygren said. “You know, they’re sick of excuses. They want a response. They want answers, and as my representative that’s my job to fight for them.”

Evers’ team said the governor and Department of Workforce Development are committed to working to get people the benefits they’ve earned as quickly as possible, but training the hundreds they’ve hired or moved from other parts of DWD takes time.

On top of bringing in more people, the unemployment office has expanded call hours by a few hours.

Nygren believes more can be done, such as making the call centers 24/7.

Democrats have been critical of Nygren’s critiques, citing the many reforms Republicans made to the system when they had full control of government.

Sen. Dave Hansen said this pandemic has exposed a system unable to keep up but that Republicans built obstacles.

“To deny their role in the pain their changes are now causing thousands of Wisconsin workers is not only dishonest, but it is part of their willful effort to undermine Gov. Evers and people’s faith in their government,” he said in a release.

Nygren said it is the leadership, not the reform, that is the issue.

According to a spokesperson with the department, the reasons for the delays are due to both the pandemic and the way the system is set up.

“The waits are due to the sheer volume of individuals filing for unemployment benefits in a very short period of time, and the amount of eligibility issues that need to be adjudicated when there is an issue on a claim,” said Tyler Tichenor, the spokesperson for the department.

He said according to federal law, the department can’t pay benefits “until all issues that affect an individual’s entitlement to UC are adjudicated.”

A nonpartisan view could come from an audit of the department, if the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, on which Nygren sits, directed the Legislative Audit Bureau to do such a thing, as it did in 2014 under former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.

Nygren said a decision on an audit would be months away but said the issues people are experiencing now are much worse.

“If we’re going to audit the Scott Walker administration for problems that were, like I said our problems now are five times worse, of course there should be an audit of why these things took place,” Nygren said.