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Gov. Tony Evers Fires Workforce Department Head Amid Continued Unemployment Backlog

Secretary Caleb Frostman Resigns At Governor's Request

Caleb Frostman, Wisconsin Secretary of Workforce Development
Caleb Frostman, secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development, seen here addressing the legislature on Dec. 4, 2018, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., while serving as a state senator. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

The head of the state Department of Workforce Development has resigned after months of delayed unemployment payments to Wisconsin residents, the governor’s office announced Friday.

Secretary Caleb Frostman resigned Friday at the request of Gov. Tony Evers, according to Evers’ office. A source close to the governor said the request was made because of the months-long backlog of some unemployment insurance claims in Wisconsin.

People across our state are struggling to make ends meet, and it is unacceptable that Wisconsinites continue to wait for the support they need during these challenging times,” Evers said in a prepared statement. “We have continued to add additional state resources to support the DWD, but it is clear that we must have change if we are going to address these problems to get folks their benefits faster.”

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About 713,000 claims submitted between March 15 and Sept. 12 are still being processed by DWD, according to numbers released Monday by the department. That represents about 11 percent of all claims in that time period.

Delays in paying out claims can be caused by a number of things, including disputes over how someone came to be out of work. For example, if an employee is fired for misconduct, they are ineligible for unemployment benefits. There can also be disputes about length of employment, number of hours worked or wages. Disputes over eligibility lead to investigations which, according to the department, are usually handled in 21 days.

However, some Wisconsin residents have been waiting months without receiving a single unemployment payment.

In May, Frostman told state lawmakers the department was struggling to process an unprecedented number of unemployment claims since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. At the time, Frostman said DWD had already brought on 650 new workers since mid-March by accepting transfers from other state departments, hiring new employees and signing deals with private contractors. It also extended call center hours to accommodate an influx in calls.

State Department of Corrections deputy secretary Amy Pechacek will lead the workforce department until Evers nominates a permanent replacement, according to the governor’s office.

Democrats, Republicans Have Blamed Other Party For Delay

Wisconsin Republicans have consistently argued the Evers administration hasn’t done enough to eliminate the backlog. Assembly Republicans proposed a loan program in July for workers awaiting benefits and have urged Evers to put more pressure on the DWD.

Meanwhile, Democrats have blamed Republicans for the delays.

They argue GOP lawmakers who have controlled the state Legislature since 2011 have not done enough to modernize the technology used at the office, especially following a 2014 report from DWD that called out flaws in the system.

Frostman has called the department’s technology “antiquated” and “inflexible,” saying it hamstrung the department’s ability to roll out new programs and changes.

In particular, the department struggled to begin processing Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits. The department began receiving claims for the PUA program on April 21, but didn’t begin issuing payments until May 21. The program is intended for people who are otherwise ineligible for traditional unemployment insurance, like self-employed workers.

Democrats have also recently criticized Republicans for a record of passing laws that put more requirements on individuals seeking unemployment benefits, like work search requirements and a one-week waiting period. However, both of those requirements have been put on hold by lawmakers during the pandemic.

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