Two years and thousands in debt later, Stoughton hair stylist still fighting for pandemic unemployment benefits

STOUGHTON, Wis. — After two years and thousands of dollars in credit card debt, Falicia Block still has little of the unemployment aid promised to thousands when the pandemic shut down her hair stylist practice for nearly ten weeks beginning in March 2020.

The Stoughton stylist opened her own business just a few months before the pandemic hit, renting her chair from another hair salon in town. But specialized circumstances–in her case, providing part-time nail services to that salon in addition to her self-employment–massively complicated her application for benefits and, three appeals later, has still not been resolved.

“I’m pretty much the main income for our family,” Block said. Bills were coming in, she still owed rent on her chair, still had to pay for insurance. “We put it on our credit cards because we were told we would be compensated with unemployment, that they would help us, that the state would be there.”

Two years later, the credit card interest is still mounting on the balance they accrued during those weeks of shutdown, and Block is still waiting for benefits that haven’t yet come.

Employment complications

From the state’s perspective, everything Block has correctly filed for has been paid out. In a statement, the Department of Workforce Development said they paid her $876 in regular unemployment benefits and another $1200 from an expanded federal benefit, payments which covered the first three weeks for which she applied.

But three weeks into the shutdown, the salon owner got a federal loan from the government to help pay salon employees while the storefront remained closed, and Block–who provided part-time services to the salon–benefitted from that to the tune of a bit more than $250 a week. It helped, although it wasn’t close to the amount of income the family needed to stay afloat.

But the loan meant Block feared “double-dipping”: she said she’d been told by multiple people including DWD representatives that filing for regular unemployment benefits while benefitting from the Paycheck Protection Program loan would be fraud. To that end, in May according to the state’s timeline, she filed for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance federal program which was supposed to cover the self-employed–where the bulk of her income originated pre-pandemic and she was currently going entirely without.

From there, her application devolved into a confusing runaround with the state. A paperwork error was cleared up in a later appeal that found her eligible for regular unemployment, another decision disqualified her from PUA, then a subsequent appeal in May 2021 fond her eligible for PUA “if otherwise qualified”.

She thought the last appeal ruling would clear the more than $6,000 she saw waiting in her unemployment dashboard to be paid out to her. She waited–assuming the holdout was caused by the appeals backlog the state was experiencing. But later in 2021, she realized payments weren’t coming and contacted her local state representative for help.

Block Points To Benefits

Block points to benefits still pending in her DWD account (WISC-TV Photo)

“It’s very confusing,” she said. “I quite literally want to cry.” After upwards of fifty calls with the state and an estimated 20 people telling her 3-4 different things, she’s now being told she was eligible for regular unemployment benefits all along, benefits she hadn’t applied for while applying for PUA.

In a statement, the DWD noted her eligibility for regular benefits. “At her appeal hearing, the Administrative Law Judge found that the claimant was unemployed due to COVID-19 and eligible for PUA if otherwise qualified,” a spokesperson wrote. “In this situation, the claimant is not eligible for PUA because she qualifies for regular UI.”

“It’s frustrating because I tried to be patient and do what I thought was the right thing in giving them their time,” she said, referring to the time period that elapsed after the final ruling when she was waiting on payments but assumed they were trapped in a backlog. “Now I’m kinda being told that it’s my fault I waited so long.”

User errors, miscommunication complicated applications for thousands

Block is far from alone. Hundreds of thousands who tried to navigate unemployment benefits in Wisconsin during the pandemic facing initial backlogs in getting payments, with many waiting months before getting anything at all while bills piled up as an antiquated system came under sudden overload from the influx of claims.

RELATED: She quit her job to care for her children during Covid. Now, Wisconsin demands $30K repayment for unemployment benefits.

Like Block, thousands more went on to face further delays as appeal backlogs piled up over minor errors, amid tens of thousands of people attempting to navigate a complex system made more complicated by the addition of several federal programs the state was tasked with administering.

Her situation puts a spotlight on the ongoing issues some still face two years later, particularly those who had a more complex employment situation or basic errors that complicated their benefits. In her case, she believes the initial confusions over her self-employed chair rental from the salon that she was also providing part-time services for complicated her application.

The DWD sent an initial timeline of Block’s case in response to questions from News 3 Investigates, but did not answer follow-up questions about how the PPP loan may have impacted her eligibility for regular benefits, or how her part-time work impacted her eligibility when taken into consideration with her self-employment.

Eligibility questions about which benefits program was most appropriate continue to plague many of a Madison-area attorney’s clients. Labor and employment attorney Victor Forberger, handling hundreds of complicated unemployment cases, says many of them boil down to paperwork errors or confusion about which program applied. In Block’s case, she says she was told PUA was the appropriate program, but that over the course of her case, she’d been told 3 to 4 different things by as many as 20 different people.

Forberger believes bad portal information and incomplete training for hastily-hired DWD employees contributed to early issues that are still plaguing some to this day. For example, Block had never been informed of another federal program she may have been eligible for under her mixed employment status–Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation (MEUC).

“There’s tons of bad advice out there, and tons of confusion,” Forberger said. “Unfortunately, claimants are the ones now dealing with the backlogs and overpayment notices and still trying to get benefits going back to March of 2020.”

RELATED: For Wisconsinites facing thousands in unemployment debt, monthly payments could cost hundreds

As of January 4 this year, the DWD said more than 55,000 people had an outstanding balance of overpayment debt of more than $50. Just 5,590 had active payment plans in place (some may have multiple overpayments). In 2020 and 2021, tens of thousands incurred overpayment balances after the state checked eligibility and found errors that led to too many benefits being paid out.

Much of the appeals backlog that piled up in 2021 has to some extent been cleared. And as of early January, fewer than 400 adjudication issues were still pending from 2020.

Separately, there were 393 pending adjudication issues from 2020 as of 1/6/2022 due to the claimant’s identity being unresolved or unverified. There will continue to be issues from 2020 as UI continues to resolve identity issues.

Since Block reached out to News 3 Investigates, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. Wednesday morning, she was contacted by a DWD agent who helped file backdated claims for the period of time she’s owed for. There’s steps left to do–and the mixed communications have left her worn out.

“I don’t feel like I’m being heard.”