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Lives on hold: Pandemic exposes failures of Wisconsin unemployment insurance system

When Fall River-based Robbins Manufacturing laid off David Ficke on March 29, the welder followed in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites during the coronavirus pandemic. He filed an initial unemployment claim, hoping it would help him survive a shutdown of much of the state’s economy.

But when a call to the state’s unemployment help line placed him in a queue of 400 to 500 people, Ficke knew he would wait a long time for a lifeline.

Unable to pay rent, he moved into the “Hotel Chrysler”—his 2006 Town and Country minivan—and drove to a rest stop outside of Albert Lea, Minnesota. He wanted to be near his 3-year-old daughter who was living with his ex-wife.

Ficke’s ex-wife discovered he was living in his van and insisted that he stay with them. That is how he ended up living with his ex-wife, her parents and her new boyfriend.

“It is what it is,” Ficke, 42, said in a video interview over Facebook Messenger. Ficke could not speak over his cellphone; he lost service for lack of payment during his nearly three-month wait for jobless benefits.

The state Department of Workforce Development has paid about 2.5 million of more than 3.4 million weekly unemployment claims it received between March 15 and June 20. The agency has denied 409,000 claims and has yet to process 509,000 others, the latter of which represents about 151,000 people.

DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman said in a June 17 interview that his agency was “very, very close” to resolving outstanding claims from March, the earliest days of the pandemic.

Frostman blames the pace on an underfunded and outdated computer system and initial short staffing for the onslaught of claims. Republican lawmakers accuse Frostman and Gov. Tony Evers for lacking urgency—waiting too long to expand call center hours and shift resources.

Not up for debate: that Wisconsin has failed thousands of its jobless residents who are missing bill payments, racking up new credit card debt and facing homelessness.

The state’s tangled safety net has failed in many ways to catch its residents, interviews with 16 laid-off workers show. Their stories highlight the difficulties of navigating the system even without a pandemic.

The problem is part of a national trend, according to experts and media reports.

In Florida, which has received 2.3 million “unique” jobless applications, one applicant reported calling an assistance line as many as 400 times without getting through. Kentucky’s applicants have waited outside state offices for hours to resolve claims issues. Washington state called in the National Guard to address its claims backlog.

The pandemic struck after a yearslong push in Wisconsin and other states to make accessing jobless benefits harder.

Just 32% of unemployed Wisconsin workers accessed benefits in 2016, down from 50% in 2007, according to a 2017 study by the nonprofit National Employment Law Project. Nationally, the rate of covered unemployed workers fell from 36% to 27% over the same period.

“States have programmed their computer systems to pause applications at every decision point, which can generate multiple eligibility determinations and denials,” Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with NELP, testified this month to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.

“As we have seen, that is going to slow down benefits getting to the public when there is a crisis.”

Long wait

Ficke’s wait for help concerns how he lost a previous welding job at Karavan Trailers in Fox Lake in 2018. Wisconsin requires unemployment insurance applicants to have worked within the past 18 months and earned enough wages. Applicants must detail that job history.

Ficke is not sure whether Karavan fired or laid him off, but his exit came as the company cut more than 50 employees at once, he recalled.

Asked on his unemployment insurance application to explain why he left, Ficke checked a box signaling he was unsure. That sent his application into an abyss of claims needing adjudication—and it required reaching an elusive DWD staffer over the phone.

“I understand waiting four or five weeks. I get it, I do,” Ficke said. “But when you’re out eight, nine, 10, 11 weeks, you have to be able to do something for the people.”

Problems not new

Ficke is among many who complain of getting kicked off overwhelmed DWD phone lines. The issue is not new.

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

The audit came as Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature focused on limiting access to unemployment insurance.

Beginning in 2011, the Legislature under then-Gov. Scott Walker enacted a series of laws that:

  • Created a one-week waiting period for benefits (temporarily waived during the pandemic).
  • Increased work search requirements for recipients.
  • Disqualified people on federal disability from accessing unemployment compensation.
  • Increased criminal penalties for making false statements or representations on applications.

Additionally, Walker signed a law just before Evers took office that restricts the governor’s ability to waive requirements for state-federal benefits programs, including unemployment insurance. And Wisconsin’s $370 a week maximum benefit is among the most miserly in the United States, ranking 40th among the states and the District of Columbia.

Unemployment applicants as of June 23 spent an average of 19 days waiting for their claims to be paid, according to DWD. But people in Ficke’s shoes are waiting much longer as the agency investigates and adjudicates issues its system flags as problematic.

The agency received 439,000-plus unemployment insurance calls the week of June 20 alone.

All told, Frostman said the agency will be adding about 1,300 new staffers, including hundreds from private vendors, to handle the surge of claims and calls, up from 504 total unemployment insurance staff in March. But 20,000-plus people continue to file initial claims every week.

Chenon Times-Rainwater, a 41-year-old life coach and small business owner in West Bend, waited more than two months before her claim was finally resolved June 26. In that time, Times-Rainwater placed her 16-year-old daughter with special needs in a group home when her family could no longer pay for caregivers to come to their house.

Times-Rainwater helps organize Wisconsin Unemployment Support Group, a Facebook gathering to trade tips and moral support for folks battling DWD bureaucracy. The group has swelled to about 4,000 members during the pandemic. In her leadership role, Times-Rainwater said she has helped relocate 14 families that have lost homes after losing jobs and lacking state aid.

Her group wants Evers to fire Frostman and Mark Reihl, DWD’s unemployment insurance administrator.

“Sixteen weeks people have gone without income,” Times-Rainwater said in an interview, “and nobody cares.”

Slow to distribute

Wisconsin is also distributing unemployment benefits under a separate federal program: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, created for people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic but “would not qualify for regular unemployment compensation.”

Wisconsin has struggled to allocate the money to folks who need it. That includes Adriana Patino, 44, of Marshall in Dane County.

The single mother, who asked to be identified by her maiden name, earns a living transcribing and captioning offline videos such as university lectures and work training—work that began drying up in April.

PUA was designed specifically to reach independent contractors like her. But Patino said DWD took two months to even allow her to apply for PUA, leaving her to fall behind on rent and car payments.

Patino previously worked for a company called CRV Holdings. She left on good terms last year to pivot to freelancing—giving her more time to care for her daughter. DWD doesn’t allow people to apply for PUA until the agency denies them regular benefits.

Patino’s case is not complicated in that regard; leaving a job voluntarily is enough to prompt a Wisconsin claim denial. But that took two months.

While still waiting, Patino learned that her eldest daughter died in Texas, and she had no money to travel to the memorial service, which has since been delayed due to COVID-19. The same day she heard the news, Evers’ office replied to an earlier email seeking help. Patino sent a fiery follow up.

DWD finally denied the regular claim the next day, sending Patino into a new queue waiting on the agency to process their PUA claims.

Money finally showed up in Patino’s bank account on June 22.

“It’s just a testament to how slow the process still is, even when they do try to expedite a request from the governor’s office because of circumstances like mine,” Patino said.

Wisconsin accepted more than 75,000 PUA claims through June 20. Congress created PUA in late March, and the U.S. Department of Labor issued administration guidance to states April 5. But Wisconsin did not begin accepting claims until April 21, and DWD took another month to issue determinations and payments.

Frostman, the workforce secretary, said his agency needed time to interpret federal guidance. Another obstacle: DWD’s 1970s-era technology, a vulnerability that lawmakers have understood for decades but never bothered to fix.

DWD planned a major overhaul of its computer system more than a decade ago, but Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration pulled the plug in 2007 as the project fell behind schedule and looked poised to exceed its $24 million budget.

The agency’s IT system requires sequential testing and programming, Frostman said, meaning new benefits programs must be added to the system one at a time. That meant DWD could not program PUA rules until it finished handling other changes required by Congress and the Wisconsin Legislature.

Frostman said he understands frustration with his agency, adding that its efforts are “starting to bear fruit” in processing claims more quickly.

Still, he acknowledged, back payments would not fix every hardship.

Ficke, the welder, guessed he has applied to 20 to 25 jobs during the pandemic. And DWD finally paid his claim July 2, ending his long wait for some income. He’s praying that Robbins Manufacturing, a small family-run company, will hire him back.

“The owner knows your name. He knows your kid’s name,” Ficke said. “You’re not just a number. You’re not just another robot to crank out as much as you can.”

This story comes from a partnership of Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio. Bram Sable-Smith is WPR’s Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch .org), which collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.


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In wake of child's death, residents question safety at Janesville's riverfront parks

JANESVILLE

Just west of the Monterey Bridge alongside Anglers Park, the Rock River shoots through narrows with a racing, diagonal current and a swirling undertow.

It sweeps past the stone abutments of two train trestle bridges, where authorities say 9-year-old Madison Billups of Janesville slipped off a sandbar and was pulled under last week.

The accident sparked a dayslong search for the girl in waters treacherous enough that trained river divers had to order the Indianford Dam shut to draw down the river and slow the dangerous current.

Billups’ death has some residents questioning whether the city could do more to make the riverfront at Anglers Park safer for families.

One resident said he would like to see a fence along the north riverbank at Anglers Park.

Upstream, at the ARISE Town Square, the city has placed emergency flotation devices on a pier and near the river wall downstream. It also has strung a floating cable across part of the the river at the Court Street bridge downstream of the town square.

Those are safety upgrades installed in 2019 after a boy slipped off the downtown pier and got pulled downstream in the swift current. In that incident, a fisherman and police were able to quickly reach the boy and rescue him.

Madison Billups was not that fortunate.

‘A rough area’

On Wednesday, two days after Billups’ body was found, city Public Works Director Paul Woodard said the city is reviewing possible safety upgrades at the park.

The city created Anglers Park as part of a riverfront face-lift after it tore out the Monterey Dam in 2018. The park has a new fishing pier and offers open access to the river for fishers and kayakers.

Similar to the town square, Anglers Park is among riverfront amenities the city recently began focusing on to make the central city’s riverfront more of a draw to families and outdoor enthusiasts.

Woodard said it’s likely the city will install at least one emergency flotation ring near the river at Anglers Park, although it’s possible the city could discuss more than one safety option.

Bystanders at Anglers Park last week said Billups and her older brother apparently waded out together into the river’s shallows on a sandbar off the north bank but then slipped out onto a rocky area near a swirling eddy.

Janesville police officials said an adult bystander who was fishing nearby tried unsuccessfully to pull Billups from the swirling undertow.

Last week, when Billups disappeared, the river was considered to be at a normal summer stage.

The spot typically is shallow but has a swift current over large rocks and an undertow that Rock County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mark Thompson said rescue divers last week measured at more than 7 mph.

That’s a strong enough current that even trained divers consider it unsafe, Thompson said.

“It’s very rocky, different-sized boulders. The water’s really, really rough there. It’s a rough area,” he said.

What about a fence?

Nathaniel Hunt, 19, of Janesville said he was at Anglers Park last Thursday, repelling off a stone abutment of the train trestle bridge near where Billups went in, when he heard shouts for help from the river—and then shortly afterward, police sirens.

Hunt said he thinks the current is more dangerous than children might recognize.

He believes that if the city wants to cultivate a public fishing park for families near a part of the river with a dangerous current, the city should erect some kind of fence along the riverbank at Anglers Park that could at least serve as a visual cue that children should stay out of the river there.

“Just like a nice, decorative, black metal fence,” Hunt said. “Have some ‘park friends’ volunteers come and put a fence in. Start early on it, and maybe you can prevent a terrible thing like that from happening again.”

Woodard said Anglers Park is designed for shoreline fishing and kayaking, both of which hinge on open access to the water. He said fencing the area might be counter to the park’s intended purposes.

“It’s a difficult balancing act because you’re trying to provide access to the river. There’s a lot of people up and down that access Anglers Park for fishing. So the question is how do you provide for safety yet allow other activities to occur?” Woodard said.

He pointed out the city has miles of riverfront that borders on city parks and public areas. Public walkways that run directly alongside the river are among the few places where the city places guardrails.

“If you’re putting up fencing along the river, where do you start and where do you stop? How do you justify one area or another? I’ll agree maybe the current may be stronger there (at Anglers Park), but there’s probably other places in the river where you have similar circumstances,” Woodard said.

What’s safest?

Woodard said it’s a challenge to provide safety measures along the river that work well for everyone because people visit the riverfront for a variety of reasons.

For instance, he said, a city safety committee is now reviewing the floating cable it installed partway across the river near the town square. The cable, which is buoyed by large floats, is designed as an emergency lifeline that a person who falls into the river might be able grab.

Some kayakers recently told city officials that the wire downstream from a kayak launch poses a hazard to kayakers.

Woodard said the city is discussing whether to keep or remove the floating cable or move or eliminate the boat launch from the floating pier.

He said there are other places near downtown to put in kayaks, and the boat launch at the town square pier has seen little public use.

Thompson is at the helm of the sheriff’s office’s recreational safety division, but he’s not involved in the city’s reviews of safety at city parks along the riverfront.

During the five-day search for Billups, Thompson told The Gazette it’s not straightforward what extra safety measures might be viable at Anglers Park.

He said that run of river is a shallow, rocky bottleneck where debris floating downstream can snag and get stuck.

Thompson said safety wires, nets or other man-made structures across the water at Anglers Park, whether floating or suspended, could catch debris just as easily as the river’s rocky bottom.

That could create potential hazards on the surface for people fishing or using small boats.

“Nets and wires and things like that aren’t a great idea. They can catch big tree limbs and logs. They can catch everything floating downriver. They can get submerged when the river goes up, and then you can’t see them. You’ve got to look at what’s safest for everybody using the river,” he said.

Last weekend at the splash pad at the ARISE Town Square, Janesville residents Nic and Natalie Tallman played with their daughter, Noel, who is a toddler.

Both said they think it made sense for the city to install safety equipment, such as emergency grab wires, downstream of the town square’s pier. Both said they believe the city should research what actions it might take at Anglers Park in the wake of Billups’ death.

“As an adult or parent, you have to have personal responsibility,” Natalie Tallman said. “But at a place like Anglers Park, maybe you don’t know what’s there in the water. It looks like it’s 2 feet of water, but if there’s a major current?

“Maybe at least put up a sign that says something about that so that people know their risk.”


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Local efforts help immigrant families during pandemic

JANESVILLE

All of a sudden, Ginna Isunza finds herself in the roles of lawyer, doctor and psychologist.

Every week since the pandemic-led shutdown, the director of the Immigrant Outreach Program at the YWCA Rock County talks with local immigrants.

She answers questions about immigration, COVID-19 and chronic stress.

“People are worried about evictions, not having enough food for their kids and if they will be called back to work,” Isunza said.

As the pandemic wears on, local immigrant families find themselves running out of resources.

“A great number are still working on the immigration process,” Isunza said. “Even though they are in the process of becoming permanent residents, they don’t qualify for public benefits.”

Rock County immigrants come from Latin America, Morocco, Russia and Laos.

“Most of the families are not eligible for stimulus checks,” Isunza said. “Even though many work in the restaurant, hotel and construction industries, they don’t qualify for unemployment or other benefits from the government.”

Isunza has been directing families to private resources so they can put food on their tables.

“We have seen a 100% increase in people reaching out with immigration questions, worries about hospital bills because some family members have tested positive for COVID-19 and concerns about their children going to school,” she said.

Faith Lutheran responds

Pastor Felix Malpica of Janesville’s Faith Lutheran Church learned about the plight of immigrant families and shared the information with his congregation.

“We wanted to meet their basic needs,” he explained. “We decided to raise funds to buy grocery and gas cards.”

The congregation responded generously.

Over more than a month, church members and some who are not part of the congregation donated $8,000.

“We are people of God … reaching out in love,” Malpica said. “That is our mission as a church, and people really want to own that.”

At first, the YWCA Rock County was able to provide gift cards to 36 families, including many single moms with kids.

Now it is helping 51 families with a $50 grocery card and a $25 gas card each.

Thanks to the church, the YWCA has been able to provide weekly gift cards without an end date.

“As the funds come in, we order cards and deliver them to the YWCA,” Malpica said. “I am overjoyed as a pastor at the generosity of my community. Rather than constrict and face inward, I have a community that looks out. This whole fundraising effort is a yearning to be part of God’s love in the world.”

His congregation has reached out in other ways.

Recently, the church created a Justice Team to guide the church community—and the broader community—toward justice for all.

“There’s been a push from folks to learn about white privilege and how we can do better for the sake of generations to come,” Malpica said. “It has been inspiring for me as a Puerto Rican man and the pastor of a predominately white congregation.”

New task force

Malpica is a member of the new Janesville Immigration Task Force, organized earlier this year.

The task force is made up of concerned citizens who want to understand the immigrant community and who seek ways to support it.

Christine Moore of Janesville is facilitator of the group.

She explained that the task force came about after a visit by John Garland, a San Antonio Mennonite pastor. He spoke in Janesville last fall about his work with immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexican border.

Garland encouraged audience members to extend a helping hand to immigrant families in their own community.

The task force met in January with more than 30 people attending.

The pandemic halted initiatives by the group, but the task force began meeting again in early March and late April.

“It’s been a great experience because of the sharing of information,” Moore said.

This week, the task force sent letters to the faith community in northern Rock County asking clergy and lay leaders to make their congregations aware of opportunities to support immigrants.

“Although they have lived in our community for years, are taxpayers and may even own their own businesses, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive federal and state benefits,” the letter reads. “Even if they or their children are eligible for some benefits, they may be afraid to apply because of recent ‘public charge’ decisions that threaten even legal permanent residents with potential deportation.”

The new “public charge” policy considers an applicant’s receipt of certain federally funded benefits in determining whether to grant a green card.

People can donate to two efforts:

  • The gift card program started by Faith Lutheran to provide food and gas to immigrant families.
  • ECHO’s rental assistance program, which could pay up to three months of housing assistance for immigrant families in Rock County. ECHO, a social service agency, does not discriminate if someone is undocumented.

Thanks to community

Isunza of the YWCA Rock County is thankful for the community response.

“It shows me there are people out there with great hearts,” she said. “It surprised me because I was not expecting it. The immigrant community is always left out of many things.”

Timing is key.

“This is a time when people of color are coming together to raise their voices and finally be heard,” Isunza said. “Discrimination is a huge thing, not only with the Latino community, but also with the Asian community, which has been blamed for the pandemic.”

Isunza added: “It is a very sad time, but I feel confident that other people helping the immigrant community is making a difference.”

Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.


Obituaries and death notices for July 3, 2020

James D. Artman

Margaret Mary “Maggie” Bostwick

Matthew Joseph Bunker

Harvey William Draves

Alan R. Ekhtiari

Marilyn J. Ellis

Lenise U. Ewing

Alecia Haffery

Thomas W. Nicks

Darold M. Pettit

Gordon E. Tate Jr.

Jay Steven Tuinstra

Bruce L. Winningham Jr.