Audit: Workforce agency answered less than 1% of jobless benefits calls early in pandemic — 9/25/20

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Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development call centers answered just one out of every 200 calls from people seeking jobless benefits during a critical early stretch of the pandemic, according to a new state audit that further quantifies the agency’s struggles to serve unemployed Wisconsinites.

From mid-March through June, 93.3% of 41.1 million calls were blocked or prompted busy signals, while callers abandoned an additional 6.2% of calls. That means less than 1% of callers reached a DWD representative about their claims, the Legislative Audit Bureau wrote in a report released Friday

The bureau also found that DWD officials in weekly updates reported incomplete data to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, failing to include millions of calls in which people got busy signals. The audit found that 19.6 million calls were either blocked or resulted in busy signals between late April and the end of June. 

The audit comes a week after Gov. Tony Evers ousted Caleb Frostman as DWD secretary, citing an ongoing backlog of unemployment claims that have left jobless residents waiting weeks and even months for aid. 

Responding to the audit, Deputy Secretary Robert Cherry accepted the bureau’s recommendations to improve recordkeeping and reporting of call center data, and highlighted the agency’s efforts to shift employees to call centers and expand their capacity during the pandemic. 

“Never has the state experienced such an incredible surge in claims so quickly,” Cherry wrote, but added that “lessons should have been learned” about call center vulnerabilities years ago. 

A 2014 state audit found that DWD call centers automatically blocked 80% of calls during times of high volume. 

For more on the state’s unemployment insurance crisis — and its impact on Wisconsinites — see our series Lives on Hold.

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“We want kids in (school), but we want to make sure it’s sustainable. …One of our biggest concerns is the consistency of bouncing kids back and forth between instructional models … and having disruption in our educational model for our students and families.”

— Vince Breunig, Lodi School District administrator, where most students are learning virtually during the pandemic, speaking to the Portage Daily Register 

Food access trouble?

We know that when classes are virtual, many Wisconsin students and families lose access to food schools provide. And as the school year starts, some meal sites are closing. Share your experience with News414, Wisconsin Watch’s service journalism collaboration with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and Outlier Media. Click here for details.

You can also view a list of Milwaukee-area food distribution sites for students here.

Data to note

Wisconsin on Friday set a record for daily COVID-19 hospitalizations for the fourth straight day as cases continue to surge statewide.
Here is the latest data from the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

Resilient Wisconsin

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Five churches complete mission to clear millions in medical debt for more than 1,000 households in Minnesota and WisconsinPresbyterian News Service

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