Evers administration fails Wisconsin’s unemployed

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News on Tuesday. Evers’ incompetence handling Covid is only matched by his incompetence in handling the riots.

As hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were forced out of work by Governor Tony Evers’ rolling shutdown edicts, he and his Department of Workforce Development utterly failed to prepare or react to the predictable onslaught of unemployment claims. The contemptible consequence is that almost three months after Governor Evers created an economic crisis, his DWD has a backlog of over 700,000 unpaid unemployment claims and the administration is telling the public that they may not get caught up until October.

One could excuse Evers and his DWD in that there were some struggles and hiccups as the waves of unemployment claims swamped the state agency. One cannot excuse, however, the fact that their lethargic response and incompetent leadership has failed to rise to the challenge.

Before issuing an order to shutter the majority of the state’s economy, a competent governor would have been able to anticipate some of the obvious consequences and plan accordingly. In this case, a steep rise in unemployment claims was the obvious and predictable result of a government shutdown order. Yet, despite such a predictable outcome, Governor Evers and his DWD failed to proactively plan for the claims. Their response was the slow, plodding, indifferent, response that underscored the caricature of a bureaucracy full of uncaring government drones. (As a side note, Evers has also failed to proactively react to the predictable massive decline in tax revenue and future deficits, but that’s a column for another day.) When Evers shut down the state, the DWD also shut down its job centers, thus eliminating in-person support for Wisconsin’s unemployed. That left Wisconsinites to either apply for unemployment online or call the state agency. As applications submitted online languished without a response, people were left with the only option of calling the DWD to get answers.

According to the MacIver Institute, the DWD unemployment call center had 57 employees when Evers shut down the state. One would note that Evers did not increase the amount of staff or capacity before shutting down the state. Such foresight is apparently beyond his capacity. The day after the lockdown with into effect, the DWD was getting 160 attempted calls per second on its 450 phone lines.

The DWD eventually transferred and hired additional staff to bring the call center up to about 150 people to try to answer the calls about over 2.1 million weekly claims that have been received. Even with the additional staff, the call center was still only open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Now, months after Evers forced an economic crisis (whether one thinks that the economic shutdown was necessary or not), the DWD is finally beginning to contract with private companies to expand their capacity. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites wait for an unemployment

check that still might not come for another six months.

Last week, DWD Unemployment Division Administrator Mark Reihl told a legislative committee that “we have done a great job” and DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman blamed the problems on an antiquated benefits system that is unable to accept new claims while it is processing old ones. Secretary Frostman admitted that the problems with their systems have been known for decades. If such problems were known, why was nothing done about it?

What were Frostman’s priorities in this budget request? According to his agency’s request for $735 million over the biennium and 1,610 employees, updating technology was not a priority. What were the priorities?

“Full funding of continuing position salaries and fringe benefits.” “Overtime.” “Grants to the UW System, Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS), and the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.” And, of course, the positive things like worker training, economic development, and other normal operations were included. For the 2019-2021 Capital Budget agency request, the only mention of the DWD is as part of a $98.5 million new building and parking garage that would house the DWD and other agencies.

If the technology was known to be so old, why didn’t the DWD make it a priority to request money to update it? Why was the ability to support unemployed Wisconsinites not prioritized over the making sure that 1,610 bureaucrats got their full wages and fringe benefits? Why was money allocated to replace a 55-year old building and not to replace 50-year-old software? Budgets are a statement of priorities and it is clear where the priorities of Evers and his DWD lie — the comfort and financial security of government employees.

Nobody expects perfection from Governor Evers and state government, but at the very least, Wisconsinites deserve a basic level of competence.