Journal Times editorial: The unemployed deserve better than a busy signal

Journal Times editorial: The unemployed deserve better than a busy signal

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It’s now been about two months since Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order went into effect, shutting down many businesses and putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

But while the shutdown was able to slow the spread of coronavirus, the state admittedly was not prepared for the number of unemployment claims that were about to inundate the system.

Currently the state’s unemployment insurance program is experiencing unprecedented claim volume with more than 300,000 claims per week. This is 194% higher than the average number of weekly claims received during the first year of the Great Recession, according to most recent figures from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. If that pace continues, the state estimates the unemployment fund could run dry by October and would need to borrow from the federal government.

Instead of being able to help residents in their time of need, the unemployment system has caused endless headaches for people.

When many people have applied, they have later received a message saying they were denied without an explanation why. And if people tried to call, they were often put on hold for hours or forced to call back time and time again — sometimes hundreds of times.

On top of that, some unemployment recipients accidentally received the wrong amounts in their bank accounts last month, resulting in the removal of payments from their accounts, according to the Department of Workforce Development.

Ryan Nilsestuen, chief legal counsel to the governor, said it’s important to realize that, “This is an unprecedented number of claims that they had to handle in a short period of time. It’s been a significant challenge.”

With that he said, the Department of Workforce Development has been hiring additional staff to deal with the backlog.

“We’ve been transferring employees from other agencies to fill in DWD,” he said. “DWD also did a significant technology upgrade to be able to handle significantly larger number of callers and that helped a lot to make sure people weren’t being dropped and that they were able to answer more calls. And there’s going to continue to be those types of technology upgrades and additional employees and streamlining processes.”

Still it’s an embarrassment to our state to hear how unprepared Wisconsin was. And it’s very concerning to think about how those unemployed workers are doing now, without a paycheck.

Thousands and thousands of people are out of work for no fault of their own. While a lot of recognition is given to the essential frontline workers, those who are unemployed are also doing their part.

Their places of work were closed in the name of public safety. Yet, the only thanks they are given for doing their part to stop the spread of the virus is a busy signal and an email saying their claim is denied.

They deserve better and the state must do better.

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