Wisconsinites still waiting for unemployment struggle to make ends meet

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions out of work, and some in Wisconsin, who lost their jobs, are still waiting for unemployment money.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development says it’s made significant progress processing unemployment claims. But tens of thousands of claims are still waiting to be processed while people struggled to get by.

When schools and businesses shutdown in March, Lachel Walker found herself out of work. She was forced to file for unemployment.

“I have been filing for 25 weeks and not a payment,” Walker told CBS 58 Investigates in September.

Walker has two kids. She says after six months of trying to get answers, she is at her wits end.

“That is why I sent you guys [58 Investigates] a message because I’m like who can hear me?” Walker said. “Who can truly help me? And not just me, other people and other families that are in this situation.”

Between March 15 and Oct. 3, about 500,000 people filed for unemployment. Since you have to file a new claim every week, that means there were about 7.1 million total claims.

The backlog became enormous. The Department of Workforce Development added staff, but struggled to keep up.

“You call customer service and I get there was a need to quickly hire folks to address people’s concerns, they have no answers,” said Chamieka House-Osuya, who is still waiting for her claims to be processed.

However this week, the Department of Workforce Development announced progress. It says about 91 percent of claims have been processed, but that still leaves more than 80,000 people waiting for their money.

“I’m next to homeless,” said Radontay Jones, who is waiting for his claims to be processed.

Many of the people waiting have cases that require an adjudicator to look into the claims. DWD says under normal circumstances, that process takes 21 days. House-Osuya has been waiting since May, and Jones has been waiting since June.

“I’m dependent on it to pay bills and stuff like that and it’s like I’m running out of resources here,” Jones.

On Facebook, there are groups dedicated to the problems with unemployment, with people saying they got help only after contacting their legislator.

That’s what Walker did. The day after our interview she emailed State Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee). A few days later, Walker’s claims were approved. Sen. Johnson wasn’t available for an interview, but her office tells CBS 58 Investigates it’s received 167 calls for help.

Rep. John Nygren (R- Marinette) says he’s had about 300 calls.

“We’ve had people who’ve lost their house,” Rep. Nygren said. “I remember one man was basically in tears, he had $17 left in his checking account. I guess there’s a sense of pride that we’re serving our constituents, but it shouldn’t take an elected official getting involved.”

Republicans and Democrats are at odds over who’s to blame for the problem.

Last month in a statement, Gov. Evers said the unemployment system is “…hindered in part by antiquated technology we inherited, and processes designed by Republicans to make it harder for folks to get these benefits.”

But Nygren says Republicans made suggestions the governor rejected, like loan programs and using the National Guard to help with claims.

“We’ve tried to find solutions that aren’t political because we know how this is perceived, but unfortunately Gov. Evers, I think, called at least the loan program a political stunt,” Rep. Nygren said.

For those struggling to make ends meet, they say there is enough blame to go around.

“I think this is the result of Republican failure, Democratic failure, systemic failure,” House-Osuya said.

And now, as COVID-19 cases surge, Gov. Evers issued a new executive order limiting stores, restaurants and other businesses to 25 percent capacity. That could lead to a new unemployment spike.

CBS 58 Investigates asked DWD if it’s ready but they did not return calls or emails for comment.

During a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Evers said he’s confident they can handle it.

“We are in the last couple of weeks, we have made significant changes within the process of issuing money to claimants on unemployment insurance,” Gov. Evers said.

We asked the governor’s office for specifics about those changes and details about the plan to prevent another backlog. We didn’t hear back.

Meanwhile, Jones and House-Osuya, and thousands of others, keep waiting. They’re unsure when they’re going to be able to work, perhaps equally unsure if they’ll be able to pay their bills.

“People need to get paid,” House-Osuya said. “People need stability. People need to be able to stay safe at home with the increasing number of COVID cases.”

Rep. Nygren says if you’re still waiting, reach out to your legislator. He also sits on the Legislative Audit Committee and says there will be a full audit of DWD’s unemployment division to determine exactly where the problems occurred.

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