Wisconsin’s unemployment system failures are not only affecting people who live here.
Art Valero lost his home in Florida while he waited for months to receive unemployment compensation he was due from Wisconsin.
The checks, more than a dozen of them totaling $370 each, were deposited on Jan. 6 for a total of nearly $7,000. But by then, he had already lost his home, most of his family’s belongings were placed in storage, his two college-aged daughters had gone back to school — paid for thanks to student loans — and he and his wife had moved in with his mother in California.
Valero, 62, most recently worked as an offensive assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point — he started with the team in April 2019 — when the pandemic hit.
He said he’d never had to rely on governmental help before. From 1981 through spring 2020, the Boise State University graduate was consistently employed as a college and professional football coach. From 2002 through 2011, he was an assistant coach in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (with whom he coached the Super Bowl champions in 2003), St. Louis Rams (who have since relocated to Los Angeles), Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans.
But then in May, he got furloughed from UW-Stevens Point. He received unemployment checks 7½ weeks after first filing due to Wisconsin’s lengthy adjudication process before he was brought back to work part-time.
After he and other coaches began working virtually, he said his July paycheck was for only $99; the state claimed he had been overpaid in unemployment compensation previously and was thus balancing out the overpayment by withholding from his new paycheck.
In August, Valero said, he was told he would be coming back full-time and in-person the next month. But on Aug. 31, as he was preparing to return to campus from his Florida home, he was let go.
‘No way’ to catch up
By October, he was three months behind on payments for his Florida condominium. That’s when he and his wife moved to stay with Valero’s mother in California, where he grew up. Valero had realized there was “no way” for him to make up the payments even after DWD processed his claims.
“I had to cut my losses somewhere,” he said of deciding to move out before likely being evicted whenever the federal eviction moratorium ends.
Now, his benefits have been exhausted and Valero intends to file for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
On top of all that, since he lost the health insurance he had through work, he said was taken off the waitlist to receive a kidney: He has type 1 diabetes and stage 1 kidney disease.
“Now you have somebody who, amdist COVID, doesn’t have health insurance,” he added.
Unclear path forward
Last week, DWD reported that almost 97% of the more than 8.87 million weekly unemployment claims received between March 15 and Dec. 19 of last year had been processed. At the time, more than 22,000 claimants had been waiting more than three weeks for their requests to be resolved.
“This system isn’t new, and these problems aren’t, either,” Gov. Tony Evers said during his Tuesday State of the State address. “And Republicans and Democrats alike are to blame. The fact of the matter is that previous administrations and more than a decades’ worth of legislators have known this system was outdated and couldn’t handle an economic crisis like the one this pandemic presented, and they never took the time to fix it.”
Fixing the problem remains a partisan battle.
In his State of the State rebuttal, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, blamed the governor for a lack of leadership and inaction on the issue. He pointed to audits conducted last year by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, which found DWD was largely responsible the department’s delays in resolving initial unemployment claims. A December audit showed that DWD “was responsible for 11 of the 13 weeks it took, on average, to resolve the initial claims.”
State leaders have known that Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance system was weak for more than a decade. In 2007, a project with an estimated cost of more than $24 million was scrapped by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration. It would have modernized Wisconsin’s unemployment system, but was abandoned for being too expensive. At that time, more than $5 million had already been spent on the project.
During the State of the State address, Evers ordered a special session of the Legislature to be held on Jan. 19 to “modernize” the state’s unemployment system. Evers is proposing spending $5.3 million “so that the DWD can start immediately working toward modernizing the UI system.” Of that $5.3 million, $481,700 would be for hiring consultants and a vendor; the rest would be “for the initial round of payments under the Master Lease Program.”
The cost of a full modernization is expected to be much more expensive, as much as $60 million.
On Wednesday, DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek (who replaced Caleb Frostman after he was fired by Evers) was quoted as saying “it’s unreal how old this system is,” referring to the mainframe that processes Wisconsin’s unemployment claims, which is nearly 50 years old.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, a frequent Evers critic, was underwhelmed by the proposition. “This is unbelievable,” he said in a Wednesday statement. “Ten months saying the system is broken, hundreds of thousands of people waiting months to receive benefit. And his ‘plan’ to fix the unemployment fiasco is $5 million to start and a mandate on employers to file online. We waited 10 months for this? Good grief. I do support updating the computer system, though.”
Likewise, Republican leaders Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukana put the blame on the Evers administration for having not been more active in addressing the issue — even as the GOP-controlled Legislature sat mostly inactive from April through the end of 2020.
“As we have seen demonstrated in the past, most recently with your administration’s handling of the unemployment claim backlog, problems like this cannot and should not be ignored with the expectation that they will resolve themselves. Throughout all of 2020, your administration stood idly by as peoples’ livelihoods were on the line; we fear that in 2021, you are doing the same with peoples’ lives,” Vos and Steineke wrote in an open letter to the governor issued Wednesday.
During his State of the State rebuttal, Vos said “These failures weren’t brought on by ancient systems. They were brought on by a lack of leadership.”
In December, Pechacek said the state’s backlog of claims was “cleared.” But Valero said that “victory lap” was “premature,” considering he and thousands of others were still waiting for their money.
Valero was told — via four different adjudicators who were individually assigned to his case over the course of a month — that his case had made it through the adjudication process on Nov. 24, was told on Dec. 23 that “payment was being expedited,” and was informed on Dec. 29 that payment would be issued the next day, even though it didn’t show up for another week.
Since March, DWD has received 1.6 million more claims than the previous four years combined. To address those claims, the administration increased staffing in the unemployment claims division from 500 to more than 1,800, but that wasn’t enough to fully fix the problem quickly.
Evers said Tuesday: “If the Legislature continues to ignore this problem — if they gavel in and gavel out (of the Evers-ordered special session) like they’ve done before (when Evers ordered a special session to address gun control in October), if they leave this problem for another administration, another generation — the people of this state will hold them accountable at the ballot box.”
Valero said he continues to look for work.
Reporting from Mitchell Schmidt and Riley Vetterkind of Lee Newspapers contributed to this story.