Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has faced criticism for long delays in delivering unemployment benefits.
In April, Wisconsin hit a record unemployment rate of over 14%. That’s approaching numbers last seen during the Great Depression, according to DWD Chief Economist Dennis Winters.
More than 728,000 unemployment claims have yet to be approved, reports the Associated Press.
The lag in processed claims is due to a lack of adequate staffing and dated IT infrastructure, according to the department’s leadership.
At a legislative committee hearing today, Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman said the department is actively working to recruit new employees to process claims. He says the aim is to hire 1300 new employees over the next several months. So far, he says, they’ve recruited about 650 new hires.
The DWD has also begun outsourcing unemployment claims processing to sub-contractors.
In the meeting, Secretary Frostman also pinned the lag in processing on the Department’s IT infrastructure. That’s largely because Wisconsin’s Unemployment Insurance system runs on a sixty year-old programming language known as COBOL.
But, he says, they’ve started bringing on experts and retired programmers to update and work on the dated system.
Frostman says that despite knowing COBOL was problematic after the Great Recession, the benefit system is still not modernized.
“First, it is really difficult to find programmers in the workforce still familiar with COBOL programming. Second, the most prominent constraint of COBOL is that its programming can only be done in a sequential manner. So that means testing and onboarding of new programs cannot be done simultaneously, which affects the timing of new state and federal programs,” Frostman said.
One of those delayed programs was Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The department began paying out the assistance last Thursday. The federally-funded program is designed to provide financial aid to residents who wouldn’t normally qualify for standard unemployment insurance.
According to the Department, the state has received over 80,000 applications for pandemic assistance in the last five weeks. Now, those backlogged applications are starting to be processed.
Although the Department’s system is dated, Secretary Frostman says the DWD can’t simply set up new protocols in the midst of the pandemic.
“We’ve called other states and seen other states stand up systems in haste that have massive problems with fraud and social security numbers being distributed. It’s been a priority to do this right, do it as quickly as humanly possible, but do it in a thorough manner so we protect taxpayers and claimants,” says Frostman.
Mark Reihl, Unemployment Division Administrator for the Department of Workforce Development, said today that the department has done everything it can to process new requests with the current system.
“The unemployment rate in Wisconsin when this started was at 3.1%, and then in just a matter of a few short weeks, we jumped up to 14%. We have done everything possible as quickly as possible to bring as many people on as we could. Frankly, I think we’ve done a great job in this period of time. Is it as good as we’d like? Certainly not. But we have done, under the circumstances, a good job,” said Reihl.
But, according to Republican Senator Stephen Nass, of Whitewater, it’s not good enough. Senator Nass is the Committee Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform, which held today’s hearing.
“If you think that’s great, we certainly disagree. Back in February, I understand where the unemployment was, but when the governor’s going to shut everything down, didn’t anybody think ‘What if we jumped 10%?’ It’s that what if question,” Nass responded.
But, according to Senator Jon Erpenbach, GOP legislators don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to unemployment. He says that the Republicans have been slowly chipping away at the state’s unemployment policies for years.
“First of all, you can’t blame the department for them following the laws the Republicans put into place,” he says. “It was just kind of galling to see the Republican leadership point fingers at the department when he, along with others on his side of the aisle, put things in place to make it more difficult.”