Less than 1% of Wisconsinites who called the state Department of Workforce Development’s call centers seeking unemployment insurance between March 15 and June 30 actually had their phone calls answered, a new state audit reports.
The audit, released Friday by the Legislative Audit Bureau, found that, of the 41.1 million total telephone calls received by DWD call centers over the three-and-a-half-month span, only 0.5% ultimately were answered. More than 93%, or 38.3 million calls, were blocked or met with busy signals, while another 6.2% of callers hung up before receiving an answer.
The number of Wisconsinites seeking unemployment insurance skyrocketed earlier this year as businesses shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, Gov. Tony Evers fired DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman for persistent delays in the processing of unemployment claims, though he didn’t mention the audit findings, which are typically shared with agencies in advance of their official publication.
Frostman’s firing followed months of criticism from state Republicans over the department’s persistent backlog of unprocessed claims.
Amy Pechacek, who was appointed to lead the transition until a new DWD secretary is appointed, said in a statement on Friday that the department continues to work through the challenges presented by the pandemic. Pechacek said the audit should result in better transparency and oversight of unemployment insurance operations.
“By significantly increasing its telephone system capacity, help center hours, and staff, UI has been able to markedly improve its customer service to UI claimants and accept nearly all calls into the UI help center since late July,” Pechacek said.
While DWD in May began providing weekly reports to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee on blocked, abandoned and answered calls, the department did not report on the number of calls that resulted in busy signals. DWD reported 4.9 million calls were blocked between April 26 and June 27, but the audit found that over the same span, a total of 19.6 million calls were blocked or resulted in busy signals.
In a letter to State Auditor Joe Chrisman, DWD Deputy Secretary Rob Cherry said calls in which a person receives a busy signal, including dead air or a single beep, are not included under the definition of a “busy signal” when reported into the system.
The department on Monday reported more than 6.7 million weekly unemployment claims had been filed since March 15. Of those, more than 10%, or 704,000 claims, were still being processed. More than $3.7 billion in state and federal benefits have been paid to Wisconsinites since March 15.
In response to the audit, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a tweet that Evers and his administration failed “during the most critical and desperate time facing Wisconsin citizens.”
“The governor made it clear last week that we needed a change at the Department of Workforce Development, and he is confident in Deputy Secretary Pechacek’s leadership to address the challenges facing the department,” Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said in an email.
To handle increasing call volumes brought on by the pandemic, DWD spent $9.3 million on additional staff at three call centers between March 15 and July 31, roughly doubling staff from 90 to 188 people, according to the audit.
In a contract, DWD required one call center, which began operations on May 20, to provide at least 500 full-time staff positions. However, the audit notes the center didn’t reach that many positions until July 19, almost two months later. DWD officials say they now have more than 1,500 individuals working on UI cases.
Traditionally, DWD has recommended individuals try to file their claims online, but still operates a call center if a claimant cannot access the internet. Between April 26 and Aug. 22, only 6.6% of all initial unemployment claims were filed by individuals calling into centers.
“Therefore, the extent to which individuals were unable to speak with the call centers explains only one reason why some individuals did not receive unemployment benefits in a timely manner,” according to the audit. “In future audit work, we will consider other aspects of DWD’s management of the program.”
Cherry attributed the department’s challenges to an antiquated system for processing claims and limited trained staff, which was strained by the unprecedented increase in unemployment claims caused by the pandemic.
Cherry also noted that with increased staffing, expanded work hours and technological updates, more calls are being answered.
“The Department has worked to overcome the unique challenges presented throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and is committed to continue improving operations and management to better serve Wisconsin residents,” Cherry said in the letter. “We appreciate the additional review and recommendations provided through this audit.”
Cherry also said DWD plans to meet recommendations made in the audit, which include adding the total number of calls made to centers in weekly reports and better assessing the effectiveness of the department’s two contractual call center agents.