Department of Workforce Development: Unemployment backlog will be cleared ‘in a matter of weeks’

NOW: Department of Workforce Development: Unemployment backlog will be cleared ‘in a matter of weeks’

WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- As we head into the holidays, tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin are unemployed and many are still waiting for unemployment benefits.

For months, CBS 58 Investigates asked the Department of Workforce Development for an interview, and now, the DWD is finally taking our questions.

This is the first time a DWD official agreed to an interview with us since September, and part of the reason is they do have good news for some of the tens of thousands of people waiting for unemployment.

As of Nov. 21, 70,070 people were waiting for their unemployment claims to be processed. This week, however, the DWD says they will remove 103,000 holds, which means about 21,000 people should get claims processed. The DWD says the breakthrough is because of a partnership with Google Cloud, which helped streamlined the adjudication process.

“We are very excited about this, we are continuing to work with Google on a daily basis around the clock, on the weekends,” said Amy Pechacek, the transition director for the DWD.

There will still be about 50,000 people waiting. CBS 58 Investigates asked Pechacek when that backlog will be cleared.

“Now we’re talking matters of weeks rather than matters of months,” Pechacek said.

CBS 58 Investigates continues to get calls, messages, even letters from people desperate for help. One of them is Beverly Bobbitt who has been waiting for unemployment since July.

“I have five kids,” Bobbitt said. “[It’s] very stressful. I’m homeless now.”

Bobbitt says she’s living out of hotels and her kids are struggling to do virtual school because they don’t always have access to WIFI.

There are also about 12,000 people who were denied unemployment but are appealing the decision. Pechacek says DWD is trying to hire more people to handle those cases.

Senequa Howard is among those appealing.

“It’s been pretty stressful,” Howard said. “I haven’t been able to make ends meet.”

Howard is a school bus driver who lost her job in March. She says she's trying to care for her kids and two grandkids and her car is about to be repossessed.

“I’ve been back to work two weeks ago, but they closed back down this week,” Howard said. “So it’s not that I don’t want to work, they constantly keep closing.”

“What do you say to those people who they have already lost their homes, they might be losing their car?” CBS 58 Investigates asked Pechacek.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear these stories,” Pechacek said. “I care very deeply about the people in Wisconsin and we are doing our best to get through this.”

Pechacek says they are making changes to prevent another backlog in the future. She says they are working to create an app and they are working with Google to create a portal where people can upload documentation. Right now, they have to mail it or fax it. Pechacek says they are also working to create an email or messaging system so adjudicators can communicate with people, rather than having to set up phone interviews.

“Google is going to be able to come in and do some of that so we can prevent this, do our best to prevent this from happening again,” Pechacek said.

She says there’s no specific timeline, but they hope to have all that completed in the first quarter of 2021.

In the meantime, there isn’t anything the people waiting for help can do.

“Is there anything people can do who are waiting, who are absolutely desperate unable to make ends meet, is there anything they can do?” CBS 58 Investigates asked Pechacek.

“We’re moving as quickly as we can, so with this new information we have last week and the amount of expedited review we’ve done, that represents a 4,000 percent production increase from our historical weekly averages, so we are going as quickly as we can,” Pechacek said. “If folks want a status of their claim, they can call the help center and speak to a customer service representative.”

DWD tells CBS 58 Investigates they began notifying those 21,000 people on Monday, the rest should hear this week. Which means next week’s unemployment numbers should show a big drop in people waiting.

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