MADISON — Last month, Gov. Tony Evers’ new secretary-designee of the dysfunctional state Department of Workforce Development claimed victory over a massive backlog of Unemployment Insurance claims.
It was a premature “mission accomplished” moment.
Just ask Ronald Letzia. The 70-year-old West Allis man has been waiting more than eight months for DWD to get its act together and pay the thousands of dollars in back unemployment benefits he’s owed.
Like thousands of other Wisconsin workers displaced because of the pandemic and government lockdowns, Letzia has been stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare. And while the Evers administration blames “antiquated” technology for the disaster, Letzia’s troubles with DWD have everything to do with agency incompetence and human error.
Tripped up and trapped
Letzia and his wife live on limited means, substantially counting on his Social Security check and small pension to make ends meet.
He had been working abut 22 hours a week stocking shelves at Target to supplement his income. When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, Letzia, who has health complications and is in the age category with the highest coronavirus-related death rate, was advised to stop working at the store.
He first applied for UI benefits on the week of May 13, according to documents provided to Empower Wisconsin. Letzia got caught up in a common glitch. He marked ‘yes’ to receiving Social Security Disability Insurance when he was actually receiving Social Security Income. He’s eligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits under the latter.
So, Letzia had to go through a hearing. He provided all of the proper documents from the Social Security Administration. He waited two months for a ruling. An adjudicator told him everything looked good.
After getting the Social Security matter cleared up, DWD officials told him he wasn’t eligible because he had stated on his original claim that he was not willing and able to work. Many others have been tripped up and trapped by confusion over that line. Because his compromised health kept him from working at public places like Target, Letzia thought he should check that he was unable to work.
The glitch cost him more time. Then DWD officials told him he wasn’t eligible for standard state benefits, but instead had to apply for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Another common hurdle many claimants had faced. Letzia filed for PUA on Sept. 22. He got a note from his doctor, as required, and filled out all the paperwork.
A full month into the new year, Letzia is still waiting.
‘I feel totally useless’
He reached out to the governor’s office, and gave them the information they sought. That was weeks ago. He said he’s heard nothing since.
Letzia said staff in state Sen. Dale Kooyenga’s office have intervened on his behalf and have been extremely helpful, but the bureaucracy simply won’t move.
His situation turned all the worse when, on New Year’s Day, his supervisor from Target called him with bad news. The retail chain was letting him go because he hadn’t been able to work for eight months.
“I said, ‘Can you wait until after I get my shot? I’ll feel safer to work.’ She said, ’No,’” Letzia said. “I’ve been there for five years. I really like working there. It supplements my Social Security.” He just got his first COVID-19 vaccine this week.
“I want to submit a letter to the DWD. I hope I don’t have trouble now,” he added.
Letzia said he’s worked his whole life. Now, while he waits for the state to resolve his claim, he and his wife are behind on their mortgage, and they don’t know how they’re going to pay their property taxes. He’s counting on a tax refund or the promised stimulus payment.
“I feel totally useless. I get so depressed,” the elderly man said. “Not only can’t I work, I have no money coming in.”
Meanwhile, he claims he’s owed as much as $20,000 in federal unemployment payments — held up by an administration that has over the course of the last 10 months left thousands of Wisconsinites on the brink of financial collapse.
“If I ever get this back pay, I could get caught up on my house payments, credit cards we’ve been using. I could get to back to even. It would be a godsend.”
Earlier this week, DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek held a nearly hour-long briefing. It was a session to blame the Republican-controlled Legislature for failing to fund upgrades to the agency’s system to process UI benefits. The mainstream media ate it up.
“I had heard anecdotally about the antiquated systems but I have to admit, I truly did not understand what DWD was dealing with until I got here,” said Pechacek, tapped in September to take over the troubled agency after Evers was forced to fire her predecessor. “Now we work in government, so no one expects the government to have the latest and greatest in any technology, but what DWD has been working with was a complete shock.”
No, it really wasn’t. Not too many in the agency and the administration, which knew about the problems long before they were exposed in the flood of Unemployment Insurance claims last spring. That crisis occurred in large part because Evers decided to lock down the state, which forced hundreds of thousands of people out of work.
As Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) noted in a letter to the governor this week, the administration has had all kinds of funding avenues available to it to fix the technology problems. They didn’t even have to ask the Legislature, the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee said.
“If you believe the UI IT System is truly the cause of the unacceptable backlog of unemployment claims under your administration, your action on this issue is egregiously overdue,” the lawmakers wrote.
Late last month, Pechacek proclaimed DWD had cleaned up the backlog of tens of thousands of UI claims stuck three weeks or more. But some 5,000 claimants like Letzia were left waiting in adjudication limbo.
Letzia continues to wait.
“I don’t know where to turn anymore, honest to God,” he said.