RACINE COUNTY — Rachel McNutt, a Sturtevant resident with a 6-year-old daughter, has spent the first few hours of her day on the phone, not talking to anyone, almost every day for the last four weeks.
She spends most of the time on hold or having calls get dropped. She’s out of work, but still has work to do. She’s been trying to get her unemployment checks after being furloughed from her bartending job in Kenosha last month. But there’s still no money coming in, largely because of technical and personnel restrictions at the state level.
“It’s frustrating,” McNutt said. “There’s a lot of people that this just sucks for. I’ve got some savings so I’ll probably be OK. But there’s a lot of people who won’t be OK.”
Emma, who lives in Downtown Racine and asked her last name not be used in this story, is in an almost identical situation: She’s been furloughed, applied for unemployment, but can’t get through to anyone at the Department of Workforce Development to clarify the issues with her application.
“I have worked my entire life,” she said. “I’ve always had a job since I was 16 years old. I’ve never had to file unemployment.”
She was furloughed from the restaurant she worked at in mid-March and applied for unemployment on March 16 at dwd.wisconsin.gov. A notice arrived in the mail a couple days later saying her application was approved.
But on March 23, when she filled out her first required weekly claim confirming she was out of work, an error with her application appeared on the Department of Workforce Development’s website.
The website instructed her to call 414-435-7069 or 844-910-3661 to correct whatever the undefined error is.
So, almost every day for the past three weeks, she’s spent hours repeatedly calling the number. On Friday, she started using two phones to double her chances. She said she has yet to anyone on the other line.
“Mostly what happens is the call just immediately disconnects. It won’t even ring,” she said.
It appears to be a widespread problem in Wisconsin. Media reports from around the state have told of people who are inexplicably unable to receive unemployment checks after being laid off or furloughed because of COVID-19.
Scale of problem unknown
Although a record of nearly 400,000 people in Wisconsin have filed for unemployment benefits in the past four weeks, it’s still unclear how many are in Emma’s situation and unable to collect. Nationwide, 22 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March.
Gov. Tony Evers acknowledged, but downplayed, the Department of Workforce Development’s technical problems during a press briefing Thursday.
“We’ve expanded the workforce and moved people around within the department,” Evers said. “We had a couple technology glitches at the beginning. But we’ve been receiving (applications) and some people are getting their checks. I know there’s thousands of people in Wisconsin who are getting their unemployment insurance checks. We are working as hard as we can …
“We keep making do with the folks we have. I don’t think anybody is doing a bad job or is deliberately doing a bad job. We’re certainly doing the best job we can under the circumstances.”
Left on hold
On the other hand, McNutt knows why her unemployment checks haven’t been sent.
Her account’s error says that some information is inputted incorrectly by a former employer. The only way she can fix it is by calling the overburdened hotline, according to DWD. But she can’t fix whatever the error is if she can’t get through on the phones.
She also has spent hours on hold over the past few weeks. She said she mills about the house while waiting and redialing fruitlessly on the phone, passing the time by cleaning or cooking or watching TV.
If you’re lucky, you get through to an automated system.
That automated system asks the caller to type in information like your name and Social Security number. After that, callers get placed on hold again. Then the call, every single time so far for Mcnutt, disconnects.
“Sometimes you can’t even get put on hold,” McNutt said.
“Every time I would get through, an automated voice would say ‘We have reached the maximum call volume. We are ending your call,’ and then hang up,” added Lisa Nelson, another woman in the same situation.
One of the few times McNutt remembers getting put on hold, an automated voice told her she was the 57th caller in the queue. She waited while an automated voice telling her things like “All of our lines are busy” and “All of our representatives are currently on the phone with a caller right now” and “We have reached the max capacity for all the phone lines.”
She waited for more than an hour until she was fourth in the queue. Then the call dropped. Again.
Even if she could get another job, that would mean putting her 6-year-old daughter in day care and offsetting much of the money she might be making. The savings McNutt does have need to go to rent and other home needs, especially if technology failures continue to prevent her from getting the unemployment checks she deserves.
Nelson has asthma. Going outside to get another job is particularly dangerous for her because COVID-19 is potentially deadly for people with pre-existing respiratory problems.
One of the few phone call success stories comes from Nelson. A 27-year-old, she grew up in Wisconsin, lives in Milwaukee and owns the LeJé Nail Salon in Brookfield, which was forced to close by state order on March 20 and won’t have a chance of being able to legally reopen until May 26 by order of the governor.
Like many others, Nelson’s application was hit with errors. Nelson’s errors were the result of what she said were confusingly written questions (which have since been clarified on the online application), delays with “adjudication” investigations that need to be conducted by DWD and the application not having clear options for people who are self-employed.
On Thursday, Nelson got two cellphones and spent hours dialing and redialing. Her phones’ records show she called the hotline more than 300 times between 7:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. After taking a break, she was finally put on hold at around 12:15. After 3 p.m., someone actually answered the call.
But only one of Nelson’s errors was able to be clarified. The woman on the other end told her that investigations are supposed to be concluded in 21 days, but “because they’re so backlogged, they’re not going to be able to do the 21 days,” Nelson was told.
So now, almost a month into unemployment, she still has no income. While many are expecting to get back pay dating to when they first filed, but there isn’t anything to help them right now.
“You feel hopeless and frustrated,” Nelson said. “As the weeks go on, you start to worry about how you’re going to take care of yourself.”
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“You feel hopeless and frustrated ... as the weeks go on, you start to worry about how you’re going to take care of yourself.” Lisa Nelson, small-business owner still waiting to receive unemployment benefits
“You feel hopeless and frustrated ... as the weeks go on, you start to worry about how you’re going to take care of yourself.”
Lisa Nelson, small-business owner still waiting to receive unemployment benefits
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