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Only 1 in 200 calls to DWD call centers were answered as pandemic worsened, report finds

Published: Sep. 25, 2020 at 12:09 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - For ten weeks, as the coronavirus gripped Wisconsin and shattered its economy, those workers hit the hardest almost always found no one on the other end of the line when they wanted to apply for or check on their unemployment benefits.

Only one in every 200 calls placed the Department of Workforce Development’s call centers between March 15 and June 30 were ever answered, a new Legislative Audit Bureau report found.

More than nine times out of ten, the caller would just be blocked or get a busy signal, while the rest of them would just hang up before every reaching someone, it added. In that time, the agency found more than 41 million calls were placed to either the call center run by DWD or one of the two operated by contractors.

“The spike in calls and initial claims that preceded the Governor’s shutdown was a clear forecast of the tsunami of calls and claims that DWD should have absolutely been able to expect when the stay-at-home order was issued,” Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem Lakes) said.

Kerkman went on to acknowledge the situation was unprecedented, however she also criticized the agency for not adapting quickly enough to a known problem. Last Friday, DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman agreed to step down from the position, following a request from Gov. Tony Evers.

The person who took the reins from Frostman, Amy Pechacek, indicated DWD turn the corner this summer, in terms of accepting calls, and noted the extraordinary number of calls the agency took in the spring and early summer. Additionally, she argued, many of the applicants were brand-new to the application process and, therefore, had additional questions. She also criticized the agency’s outdated IT system, which she said “hamstrung” their efforts.

“DWD continues to work to overcome the unique challenges presented throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and is committed to continuous improvement to better serve Wisconsin residents,” she said, adding that DWD welcomes the input from the LAB, which she says will improve its transparency and oversight.

Kerkman’s co-chair on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee Senator Cowles (R-Green Bay) accused the agency of deliberately obfuscating the number of people who weren’t getting through when they called. In their joint statement, Cowles and Kerkman stated DWD reported to the committee that 4.9 million calls were blocked as part of a weekly update the agency was providing weekly.

They allege that by only citing blocked calls, DWD officials ignored the ones who received busy signals and, when combined, that number quadrupled to 19.6 million calls.

“I view this as DWD deliberately withheld information from the Co-Chairs. Undoubtedly, the information that was reported softened the true severity of the lack of responsiveness of the UI call system,” Cowles said.

He accused agency officials of having a “slow and inadequate” response to the crisis, noting that in one six-week span during the height of the onslaught of phone calls, DWD only added six new staff members.

Over a wider time frame, LAB’s report found the DWD-managed call center’s staff more than doubled from 90 employees at the end of March to 188 four months later. DWD also extended the center’s hours of operations. By then, Wisconsin’s call center was open for the second-highest number of hours per week among seven Midwestern states, researchers found.

However, LAB noted one of its contracted call centers was expected to maintain a staffing level that would equal 500 full-time employees. While the contract was inked on May 20, the center did not meet the requirement for nearly two more months.

In her statement, Pechacek also nodded to the now-expanded capacity and contended that the agency has “markedly improved” its customer service for individuals claiming unemployment. She added that the agency has been able to accept nearly all calls since late July.

LAB concluded this update by recommending DWD add to its weekly legislative reports the total number of calls that did not reach call centers, create a records disposition authorization for its call center data, and mandate the companies that run the other two call centers report on their contractually-specified targets.

Copyright 2020 WMTV. All rights reserved.

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