The head of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Caleb Frostman, resigned on Friday.
His resignation came at the request of Governor Tony Evers, as the Department has struggled since March to keep up with processing unemployment claims.
The head of the state Department of Workforce Development, Secretary Caleb Frostman, has been effectively fired by Governor Tony Evers.
Amy Pechacek will temporarily lead the embattled department, transitioning from her former role as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Corrections.
The firing and hiring comes as the Department of Workforce Development has struggled to process unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic.
In May, Secretary Frostman pointed to the DWD’s s aging computer program as a major bottleneck.
“Although it was known to be highly problematic coming out of the Great recession, UI’s benefit system is still not modernized,” Frostman said.
However, Victor Forberger, an unemployment lawyer in Madison, says the issue goes deeper than old programming, and has more to do with the changes made to unemployment claims during former-Governor Scott Walker’s administration.
“It’s been remade into a weapon,” Forberger says.
In a previous interview with WORT, Forberger said that filing unemployment in Wisconsin is significantly more complex than in other states.
“Wisconsin is, from what I’m seeing, is maybe the only state now that does not provide any public guidance or description about the claim filing process,” Forberger said, “If you go to other states you can actually see the questions that you will be asked and guidance about how to answer those questions correctly.”
According to the press release announcing Frostman’s resignation, the DWD now has over 1,500 employees working on unemployment insurance cases, a 250% increase from the original 600.
But Forberger says that is nowhere near enough.
“So, they’re still going 6 times normal, what they were last year at this time, so that means if you’re going to process the same number of cases like you did by 2019 you have to hire 6 times the number of staff,” Forberger says.
At a Legislative Committee hearing in May, Mark Reihl, the Unemployment Division Administrator for the DWD, defended the department, saying that it had done everything it could given the circumstances.
“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,” Reihl said, “Is it as good as we’d like? Certainly not. But we have done, under the circumstances, I think we have done a good job.”
Republican Senator Stephen Nass challenged Reihl’s assessment, saying the department should have predicted a spike in unemployment.
“If you think that’s great, we certainly disagree,” Nass said.
Speaking with WORT in May, Senator Jon Erpenbach pointed out that the issues were exacerbated by Republicans undermining the program over the years.
“First of all, you can’t blame the department for them following the laws the Republicans put into place,” Erpenbach said, “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.”
The most recent unemployment data shows that out of the 6.7 million claims filed since March, more than 10% have not been completed, leaving more than 700,000 claims unresolved.