Opinion

Wisconsin Government Agency Is Still Failing Claimants

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Posted: Oct 16, 2020 1:47 PM
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Wisconsin Government Agency Is Still Failing Claimants

Source: AP Photo/Scott Bauer

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers’ dysfunctional Department of Workforce Development is boasting that things have improved since the agency’s incompetent director was shown the door. 

Brittney Gitzlaff, who has been waiting since March for DWD to get its act together, says she hasn’t noticed any changes. 

“It’s crazy,” the Menomonee Falls mother of three said. “We just don’t know what to do at this point.” 

Eight months and promise after broken promise later, she’s still waiting to be paid. At one point, a DWD adjudicator asked her if her 8-year-old daughter could watch her younger siblings so that she could go back to work. 

Despite Evers' claims, the failure goes on at DWD.

Can your 8-year-old watch your other kids?

Gitzlaff, 33, says she filed her first Unemployment Insurance claim in mid-March, after the Evers administration ordered Wisconsin’s schools closed in advance of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gitzlaff, like a lot of parents, stayed home to take care of her young children, two of whom were forced to attend school virtually because of the governor’s stay-at-home order. 

Employed at a car dealership, she wasn’t able to work remotely at the time. She was entitled to unemployment, DWD officials assured her. 

Then they rejected her. Gitzlaff, like many other claimants, said she was not able to work given her circumstances. That was the wrong answer. She was told to apply for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). She did. She spent months online and on the phone waiting for an answer. She got nowhere. Finally, a month ago, Gitzlaff was denied PUA, but told that she could apply for “regular” state Unemployment Insurance again. 

“The last person I talked to said I will definitely be approved,” Gitzlaff said. “Here we are a month later and no one has contacted me.” 

At one point early on in the process, she said a DWD adjudicator called and asked her the ages of her children.

“He said, ‘Can’t your 8-year-old watch your 5-year-old and your baby (while you work)?” Gitzlaff recalled. 

‘Monstrous’ 

She’s gone back to work part-time, remotely, as she, like so many Wisconsinites serve as an auxiliary teacher during the virtual education era. Her husband, a plumber, has seen his work slow in recent months. He tried to apply for unemployment benefits, and was rejected, too. 

Gitzlaff estimates the state owes her $16,000 in UI payments. 

“It’s a struggle. It’s not easy, obviously, with my kids still being home. We’ve gone through all of our savings,” she said. 

The backpay would help, but Gitzlaff said she can’t count on it. 

State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) has intervened on Gitzlaff’s behalf. She’s frustrated, too. 

“I really believe it’s purposeful at this point. No one would make people wait eight months for paid-in benefits unless you are a sadistic ogre,” Brandtjen said. “The governor’s team is poorly trained and completely understaffed, leaving citizens frustrated and broke. Evers created the joblessness (through lockdown orders) and then delayed payments. It’s monstrous.” 

DWD officials say the agency is doing better. Earlier this week, they claimed 92 percent of state unemployment claims have been processed. Still, about 590,000 of the 7 million-plus claims taken remain under review. 

‘Disappointed’ 

Evers asked DWD Secretary-designee Caleb Frostman to step down last month — after seven months of failure. A state audit quickly followed showing 93.3 percent of the 41.1 million phone calls made to DWD’s call centers during this year’s flood of unemployment claims were blocked or received busy signals. 

Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Amy Pechacek was tapped to lead the transition until the new secretary is appointed.

“People across our state are struggling to make ends meet, and it is unacceptable that Wisconsinites continue to wait for the support they need during these challenging times,” Evers said.

The struggle goes on. Another review last month found nearly 6,500 Unemployment Insurance claimants had been waiting since March and April for DWD to resolve their claims. 

As unbelievable as it may sound, Gitzlaff knows her wait could drag on even longer. The Evers administration has drastically cut capacity limits at Wisconsin bars, restaurants, retailers and other businesses, a move that will only lead to more Unemployment Insurance claimants. 

“I’m just so disappointed in how they’re treating citizens,” Gitzlaff said. “It’s not welfare, it’s our money that is due to us. I hate the way I have been treated through the system.”