By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans sparred with leaders in Gov. Tony Evers administration at a sometimes heated legislative hearing Wednesday, faulting them for not doing enough to quickly process unemployment claims during the pandemic.
The hearing — only the second held by a legislative committee since the pandemic broke out — laid bare the partisan debate over who is to blame for the backlog of unprocessed claims.
The unprecedented surge in unemployment claims caused by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in Wisconsin’s unemployment rate more than quadrupling to 14.1% in April, hitting its highest level since The Great Depression. The average number of weekly claims skyrocketed from 45,000 a week to 300,000.
By Saturday, 2.4 million claims had been received but only about 1.7 million had been processed, according to the Department of Workforce Development. Of the roughly 728,000 unpaid claims, about 11% were not eligible.
Republicans accused DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman of not being prepared for the surge in claims and not doing enough when it arrived.
“Why wouldn’t there be more transfer of employees, get the cavalry coming in?” asked committee chair Sen. Steve Nass, a Republican from Whitewater. “People are hurting out there. Tearjerkers. When I was unemployed one time, I know how it is. … I get it. I’ve been there. It’s scary.”
Frostman said each state has its strengths and weaknesses in responding to the unemployment surge and that there is no “silver bullet.” He recommended that the state bring its computer systems up to date, increase its weekly unemployment benefit and permanently do away with the mandatory week the recently laid off must wait to receive benefits. Republicans imposed the waiting period in 2011 but voted last month to waive it until February.
GOP Sen. Chris Kapenga bristled at Democrats’ arguments that policies enacted by Republicans in recent years have made it harder for the unemployed to get their benefits.
“I don’t want to hear another person say it’s all the Republicans’ fault,” Kapenga said. More state workers could be transferred to work on processing claims and to expand a call center so it can stay open around the clock, rather than from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., he said.
Frostman said he and his colleagues are intent on processing claims faster. He testified that a 50-year-old computer system has “hamstrung” the state’s ability to process claims more quickly.
“One of the most glaring lessons learned coming out of the Great Recession was the desperate need to modernize the unemployment insurance base benefits system, yet Wisconsin is still saddled with one of the most antiquated and inflexible systems in the country,” Frostman said.
Frostman said the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program prevented his department from using the system without first testing it to ensure payments were being made accurately. That program provides up to 39 weeks of benefits to people not eligible for regular unemployment compensation or extended benefits.
The state has received more than 87,000 applications for benefits under that program, but only about $108,000 in benefits have been paid.
“While understanding the potential impacts of a minor delay in deployment, we felt it prudent and responsible to prevent any widespread issues that could cause even greater delays and hardship,” Frostman said in a statement before the hearing.
Wisconsin was also the last state to begin issuing the $600-a-week in supplemental unemployment benefits from the federal government, according to The Hamilton Project, an initiative by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute. Wisconsin first began sending payments on April 29 and has paid more than $870 million in benefits.
Noah Williams, director of the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said spikes in unemployment and the difficulties in Wisconsin were not out of line with national averages. However, Williams said “other states have certainly done better in terms of processing claims.”
By Wednesday, 539 people have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin and there were nearly 16,500 confirmed cases, according to the state Department of Health Services.