MADISON — Nathan Conner Sr. and his 6-year-old daughter spent last night in a dumpy motel room in Green Bay. They’ll do it again tonight.
But with money and hope running out, Conner, 44, says he’s not sure where he and his daughter will be next week.
“I’ve pretty much exhausted any savings I had. My credit cards are maxed out … It’s heartbreaking,” he told Wisconsin Spotlight Monday in a phone interview. “When I look at my kid and tell her, ‘No, we can’t do this, or we can’t do that.’ I can’t even tell her why. I don’t want to worry her. A 6-year-old shouldn’t have to carry all this around.”
Conner is among tens of thousands of out-of-work Wisconsinites still waiting for their unemployment benefits from the dysfunctional state Department of Workforce Development. He has waited nearly four months. He has spent weeks at a time hearing nothing at all from the overmatched agency. He’s been rejected by a rude adjudicator, only to be told that his claim was mistakenly denied.
And when, finally, the manufacturing plant where he had been employed called him back to work, Conner was sent home after just three hours on the line because the factory was worried about local stringent social-distancing regulations.
Now, as he waits for another turn in the DWD barrel, Conner is just hoping the local homeless shelter can find room for a worried dad and his daughter.
“I’m not a priority because I’m not a victim of domestic violence,” he said. “We’re on a waiting list for shelters that take people in my situation. I keep calling back to check. Nothing.”
‘I have to start my weekend’
Conner said he first filed for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits at the end of March. States administer the federal funding allocated during the COVID-19 outbreak. Conner sought PUA because of his “limited work history.” He said he was in a bad accident last year and his physicians finally cleared him for more work in January. That’s when he started his job at the manufacturing plant. But he had only two full months of income before he lost his job.
He and many of his co-workers were laid off after Gov. Tony Evers issued his stay-at-home order which shut down much of the Badger State’s economy.
“They shut the plant down by sectors,” Conner said. “I worked on Line 9 in the north building. They kept the south building operating while they implemented the COVID-19 cleaning and training for all the managers. They scaled back in staff and when they reopened, they were at 25 percent (capacity). And I was the low man on the totem pole.”
He was rejected for standard state unemployment benefits. He was told to keep filing. Conner said he went a month and a half without hearing anything from DWD. When he did finally receive a status update, he was told someone was reviewing his application and he would get a call.
Days stretched into weeks.
Finally a couple of weeks ago, at 5:52 p.m. on a Friday, Conner said he got a call from a DWD adjudicator. He said they got into a “tiff.” Suddenly, the adjudicator told him it was quitting time.
“She said, ‘Oh, it’s 6 o’clock. We have to wrap this up. I have to start my weekend,’" Conner said.
On the following Monday morning, he found a notice in his email that said he had been denied for PUA benefits. That was July 6.
On July 9, Conner received a call from a DWD representative telling him that he was “wrongly denied.”
“He said, ‘We’re going to put you in the computer and we’re going to have to review that decision. The bad news is you’re going to go into adjudication again and we don’t know for how long,’” Conner said.
The displaced worker admits he isn’t perfect. He certainly doesn’t have a perfect past. A review of online court information shows multiple criminal convictions on Conners’ record, including drug felonies.
He also has had previous trouble with the Department of Workforce Development. In 2014, Conner found himself in front of an administrative law judge in a dispute over unemployment compensation. He was working construction at the time and his boss claimed Conner received more in payments than he was owed. The judge found both Conner and the contractor at fault. Conner paid the $600 and the claim was fully satisfied by February 2015, according to court documents.
He appears to have successfully completed the requirements of his probation in the criminal charges.
“I changed how I was doing things,” Conner said. “That person I was before, all that left, especially after my daughter was born.” He has no active criminal cases filed against him, according to online court documents.
“This is a country of second chances,” he said.
But there aren’t many second benefactors.
Conner says his support system has run out. Many of his family members and friends who have helped out over the past months are facing foreclosures, evictions, growing debt, he said.
He recently applied for FoodShare benefits so that he and his daughter at least have something to eat. For a guy who prides himself on “working his ass off,” Conner said public assistance is a punch to the pride.
But he’s got more to think about than himself these days. There’s a little girl counting on him. That’s why the Unemployment Insurance fiasco is all the more frustrating. He said he’s reached out to the governor’s office. He got a form letter reply, encouraging him to apply for more public benefits. While he said lawmakers like state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) has done all she can to intervene on his behalf, DWD bureaucrats seem disconnected from empathy.
Conner describes the debacle at DWD as “a labyrinth inside of a maze inside of an enigma on Mars.”
“I feel powerless. It’s the worst feeling ever. More than that, I feel powerless about her well-being. That’s so unsettling as a parent,” Conner said, referring to his daughter.
DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman has noted these are unprecedented times.
“DWD is working diligently to serve the people of Wisconsin,” DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman said last week in a statement. “Since March 15, 2020, DWD has received over 4 million weekly claims. To put this in perspective, the Department received approximately 1.6 million claims in all of 2019.”
But it could be Aug. 15, at the earliest, before the mountain of remaining unemployment claims are settled, DWD officials have said.
Conner doesn’t have that long.
“I don’t see myself making it another two weeks,” he said. “We’re good for this week, up until this weekend. After that, I have no idea what I’m going to do.”