The economic fallout from COVID-19 has devastated Wisconsin whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. According to the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), Wisconsin’s unemployment rate reached 14.1% in April, a number that surely increased in May.
While unemployment claims shot up, Governor Evers’ DWD failed to scale up operations to combat this growing challenge. This failure is not a matter of partisan politics as some have tried to make it. It is the reality on the ground that unemployed Wisconsinites are facing each and every day as they call DWD hundreds of times for weeks on end without receiving any assistance.
DWD currently has a backlog of hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims. The department has been slow to pay benefits, expand their unemployment hotline calling hours and reassign state employees to help with claims. This delayed response has worsened an already bad situation for Wisconsinites.
I certainly understand that DWD faces significant challenges, but other governors acted proactively by expanding their hotline hours and reallocating staff resources to better address this challenge. The results are telling. Wisconsin was among the last states to begin processing the additional $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) payments. In Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois these payments began about three weeks before the first payments were made here in Wisconsin.
On May 27, Secretary Caleb Frostman appeared before the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform. His testimony did little to explain DWD’s failure to this point. Instead, Frostman focused on inaccurately blaming out-of-date technologies and refusing to take responsibility. He was unable to answer questions about why the Evers administration did not anticipate that unemployment would increase dramatically as they prepared to shutdown Wisconsin’s economy.
Democrats have also indicated conservative reforms to unemployment are causing delays. Work search requirements and other reforms were put in place to stop waste, fraud and abuse. Many policies including work search requirements have been waived during this extraordinary COVID-19 situation. These excuses are simply an attempt to misdirect and avoid accountability for the failures of DWD.
Wisconsin’s loss of $25 million in federal funding to help pay for unemployment is another issue of concern. This was an unfortunate error, but as Congress crafted the CARES Act it was unclear what the requirements would be and if retroactive changes by state legislatures would be allowed. The State Legislature and Governor Evers are responsible for failing to come together on this issue. We should have focused on a narrower bill that addressed immediate concerns, but instead we were bogged down by an enormous $700 million omnibus proposal from Governor Evers that sought to spend revenue that had all but evaporated. Ultimately, the source of funding to pay unemployment is not the problem, DWD’s failure to process claims and issue payments for upwards of 675,000 Wisconsinites is.
Our state agencies under the direct control of the Evers administration need to provide efficient and effective services to Wisconsinites. As of today, Governors Evers and DWD have failed miserably.
Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) represents the 20th Senate District.