MADISON — In late March, Wisconsin and the world got to know Cliff and Yvonne Hooks and their Cliff "Cooks" restaurant in Barneveld.
It was a good story in the midst of a pandemic and governments shutting down communities and states nationwide. Hooks took prices off the menus and only accepts donations to help a growing number of community members make ends meet.
“There’s no money — there are people that are not sure where their next meal is coming from and they don’t have money to buy food, and it seemed like a simple solution,” he told CNN.
The story certainly caught the attention of Gov. Tony Evers, who nudged his dysfunctional state Department of Workforce Development to help Cliff through the Unemployment Insurance maze, according to emails obtained by Empower Wisconsin through an open records request.
On April 7, Evers’ staffer Ben Belzer informed the governor that DWD got swift action for the Good Samaritan restaurant owner.
“You may remember speaking to Yvonne Hooks on the phone last week about their small business, Cliff Cooks Café, that has been offering free meals to those affected by COVID-19,” Belzer wrote the governor. “Just wanted to give you an update after speaking with DWD regarding Yvonne’s husband’s UI claim.”
It seems Cliff Hooks was having trouble getting an answer “as to whether his unemployment claim would be accepted or denied.”
“DWD just informed me that they made a determination and Mr. Hooks UI claim was paid out yesterday,” Belzer wrote.
“Good news, thanks,” Evers responded not long after.
The governor couldn’t contain his excitement. At 2:16 p.m. that afternoon, Evers forwarded DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman Belzer’s email, with a quick, “FYI, thanks to your staff.”
That was great news, Frostman quickly wrote back. He told the governor that DWD was continuing to “expand capacity and work out kinks in our IT and Telecom infrastructure.”
And then he told Evers something that was — and would become more so — patently false.
“(E)very piece of feedback from constituents who have interacted with our staff has been immensely positive,” Frostman said.
Even then, we were learning that hundreds of thousands of workers that COVID-19 and Evers’ statewide lockdown had displaced were not as fortunate as the restaurant owner with the positive headlines.
As Wisconsin Spotlight would report in the months ahead, Frostman and his team would be roundly and rightly criticized by lawmakers, businesses, and the very people who depend on the Department of Workforce Development for their glacially slow response to unemployment claims. Many of those same people were employed at restaurants and bars that Evers ordered closed amid the virus outbreak.
While the governor and his staff intervened on behalf and assisted Cliff and Yvonne Hooks, tens of thousands more unemployed were stuck in a nightmare of bureaucratic incompetence, malfunction and inhumanity.
People like Jaime Swan, a single mother of two who spent more than five months waiting for the agency to come through on her unemployment benefits. She, like so many, was on the verge of eviction, losing her phone service, and having her electricity shut off.
“I have nothing left,” she wrote in a letter received by the office of state Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield). “Please help me and my kids. IM begging you. I have nowhere else to turn. Please do whatever it takes to get my claim processed. I honestly believe that you are our only hope.”
Swan had an advocate in the state senator, whose office went to bat for her. The dysfunctional agency still refused to properly process, adjudicate and pay out the benefits that she earned until after her story appeared in Wisconsin Spotlight.
Nathan Conner didn’t get the Evers treatment, either. The laid-off factory worker told Wisconsin Spotlight in July that he and his 6-year-old daughter were forced to live in a shady Green Bay area hotel after four months of DWD failing to come through on his claims.
“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 finally was approved for unemployment payments, not long after someone read his story in Wisconsin Spotlight and offered him a job in the Milwaukee area.
The suffering for others goes on.
As of mid-August, there were 655,000 weekly claims in process — claims awaiting wage verification, adjudication, etc. Those, of course, are in varying stages, from claims filed in recent days to many months ago.
Frostman insists the needs of out-of-work Wisconsinites “continue to drive our collective sense of purpose at DWD.”
One thing is for certain: every piece of feedback from constituents who have interacted with DWD isn’t “immensely positive,” as Frostman once asserted.
“I feel so helpless. I feel like I’m in a pile of papers and nobody really cares. I think they’re just trying to get rid of me,” Jaime Swan told Wisconsin Spotlight when she was caught in the DWD Unemployment Insurance morass.