Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News last week:
In response to the disgraceful management of the Unemployment Insurance program by the Department of Workforce Development, the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau audited the response and performance of the state’s call centers. The audit uncovered the exact kinds of lethargy, indifference, and poor leadership that confirm the worst stereotypes of government bureaucracy.
The scale of the problem the DWD faced was real and unprecedented. Governor Evers declared a public health emergency on March 12, closed schools on March 13, and after ratcheting down public gatherings, ordered everyone home on March 24. The governor’s order shuttered most businesses in the state and forced hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites out of work. Evers caused an unprecedented rush of people filing unemployment claims.
In 2019, an average of 4,700 Wisconsinites per week filed an initial unemployment claim. The DWD’s UI call center took about 6,300 calls per week. According to the DWD, 93.4% of initial claims were filed online with only 6.6% being filed through the call centers. The DWD UI call center had a staff of 90 employees.
Beginning the week of March 15, the number of initial claims skyrocketed. It peaked the week of March 22 with 116,129 initial claims filed and was half that by the week of April 5. The DWD call centers received 1.4 million calls the week of March 22 and almost 6 million calls the week of April 12. All told, there were 41.1 million calls made to the DWD call centers between March 15 and June 30. Of those, 93.3% were blocked or received a busy signal; 6.2% of callers got through but hung up before being answered; and only 0.5% of calls were answered.
The DWD woefully underreported the extent of the problem to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. The DWD reported the number of calls blocked, abandoned, and answered. The calls it reported as “blocked” were calls that reached the system and the caller was told to call later and disconnected. They did not report the number of callers who just received a busy signal. In doing so, the DWD failed to report 75% of the calls that were unable to reach the call centers.
When challenges arise, leaders rise. Unfortunately, there were not any to be found at the DWD or in the governor’s mansion.
It is important to follow the dates. On March 31, two weeks after Evers declared a public health emergency, DWD began increasing the staff of its call centers. By the end of April, six weeks after the emergency declaration, they had added four employees. A month later, they had added a total of 37 employees. By the end of July — a full 20 weeks after the emergency declaration — they had added a total of 98 employees. Meanwhile, Wisconsinites continued to get busy signals and wait for checks that never came.
One would think that the DWD employees were burning the midnight oil to help their fellow citizens in these unprecedented times, right? Wrong. From March 15 to July 31, while hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were unemployed and looking for help, DWD call center workers worked a scant average of 1.6 hours of overtime per week. The call center was only open for 39.58 hours per week until May 20 before they began expanding hours slightly.
The DWD also dragged its feet to contract with outside call centers. Again, the dates are important. The governor declared a state public health emergency on March 12. On April 9, DWD began the process by requesting approval from the Department of Administration to waive a competitive bidding process. The DOA gave approval on April 16 and on April 20, the DWD requested bids. It awarded the contract to Alorica on May 7 — eight weeks after the emergency declaration.
As Alorica call center took several weeks to ramp up to capacity, the DWD did not require that they provide any information about the actual effectiveness of the call centers. The DWD has no idea if they were able to actually resolve the callers’ issues after the initial call. More calls were finally being answered, but nobody is certain to what effect.
If Wisconsin had a competent governor with a competent administration, they would have anticipated the rush of Wisconsinites seeking to file unemployment claims when they effectively shut down the state’s economy. They would have aggressively worked to expand the capacity of the DWD UI staff, expanded hours, worked overtime, accelerated outsourcing, and done everything possible to serve Wisconsinites who were forced out of work due to government action. Instead, the governor, DWD secretary, and agency bureaucrats plodded along at government speed while unemployed Wisconsinites waited and worried.
Governor Evers forced his DWD secretary to resign as the administration’s scapegoat, but he should take a hard look in the mirror and ask why his administration failed precisely when so many Wisconsinites needed it most.