Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MADISON – Fewer than 1% of calls from Wisconsin residents who lost their jobs during the pandemic were answered by state officials overseeing unemployment benefits, and the Evers administration did not report important information to lawmakers showing the full scope of the problem, a new state audit shows.
The audit confirms stories the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has heard for months from hundreds of people who were forced out of jobs or work because of the pandemic, and it is being released a week after Gov. Tony Evers fired the agency’s secretary over lack of progress in clearing claims from more than 90,000 people.
The analysis from the Legislative Audit Bureau Friday shows 93.3% of the 41 million calls to the state Department of Workforce Development unemployment call centers between March 15 and June 30 were blocked, or callers received a busy signal.
About 6% of callers hung up before reaching anyone and 0.5% of calls were ultimately answered.
But the agency didn’t report the full scope of the problem to lawmakers on the audit committee, the audit shows.
Between April and June, the agency reported to Republican audit committee co-chairs Sen. Rob Cowles and Rep. Samantha Kerkman that 4.9 million telephone calls were “blocked, abandoned, and answered.”
But auditors found a total of 19.6 million calls were actually blocked or resulted in busy signals.
“That’s the piece that is most troubling,” Cowles, R-Green Bay, said in an interview.
Auditors recommended that the agency should modify its weekly reports to indicate the total number of telephone calls in which individuals were unable to reach the call centers, including telephone calls that were blocked and telephone calls that resulted in busy signals.
“Doing so will provide the co-chairpersons with complete information,” auditors wrote.
Rob Cherry, deputy secretary of DWD, said the misstep resulted from the agency adopting the call center’s software’s definition of blocked calls, which did not include busy signals.
“Calls in which callers receive a busy signal, including a fast busy signal, single beep, dead air, etc. are not included in this definition because they do not enter the system,” Cherry wrote. ” We will separate and specifically report on the number of calls that receive a busy signal beginning on the report dated September 25.”
Cherry reiterated in the agency’s response that the state has never experienced such a sudden and massive influx of unemployment claims, and that the agency’s outdated system was ill-equipped to handle the workload effectively.
Lawmakers and previous administrations for decades have known the agency’s unemployment infrastructure was outdated, resulting in high numbers of blocked calls, but have not opted to spend the money to replace it.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the efforts to slow the spread of this deadly virus triggered historic numbers of claims in a matter of weeks. Never has the state experienced such an incredible surge in claims so quickly,” Cherry wrote.
“During previous economic downturns, claims slowly increased over time.”
He noted during the Great Recession, the state’s highest weekly unemployment claim total of 195,000 occurred three years after the recession began.
“It was within just six weeks of COVID-19 when we saw a peak of approximately 321,000 weekly claims made this year,” Cherry wrote.
“In 2010, lessons should have been learned about the inability of the UI benefits system to keep up with high demand brought on by a recession — much less the unforeseen situation of immediate mass shut-downs due to a pandemic. Yet, (the unemployment) system has not been modernized,” he wrote.
Former Secretary Caleb Frostman was fired by Evers on Friday, Sept. 18. The agency’s deputy secretary submitted a response to the audit dated Monday, suggesting Evers knew of the audit’s findings when Frostman was told to resign.
Cowles said the agency received a copy of the audit the same day Frostman was fired.
A spokeswoman for Evers did not immediately respond to questions.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the administration failed “during the most critical and desperate time facing Wisconsin citizens.”
State auditors also found that one vendor for call staff was contractually obligated to provide 500 full-time staff to begin answering calls by May 20. However, that many new staff weren’t in place until two months later.
Callers waited on hold for an average of 52 minutes before speaking with a DWD call center employee, and less time when callers reached centers operated by outside vendors.
Auditors found that DWD did not require the vendors, Alorica and Beyond Vision, to provide the agency with contractually required information on the effectiveness of their call centers, which were open the second-highest number of hours among Midwest call centers.
Write to Molly Beck at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.