Wisconsin Unemployment System Making Strides Toward Modernization

The leader of Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development said Monday there’s been “fantastic progress” in its efforts to modernize the state’s unemployment insurance system.

Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek, in an appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show,” said the department is paying 84 percent of unemployment claims within one to three days.

DWD struggled in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic shutdown of March 2020 and the influx of claims that resulted placed a strain on the unemployment system, creating a backlog of hundreds of thousands of claims. Some potential applicants weren’t able to connect to the department’s call center to complete the process.

As of June 2020, unemployment applicants waited 19 days on average for their claims to be paid, according to DWD data. Some applicants reported much longer waits, however.

We have inherited a system that is over 50 years old,” Pechacek said. “When I walked in the door, I was surprised to learn that when folks had to send in documentation to support their unemployment claim, they had to either fax it or mail it.”

Since then, the department has made changes so applicants can upload those documents online.

“We’ve got artificial intelligence on the backend that pulls that data right off, so it’s very efficient,” Pechacek said.

According to the most recent department statistics, 91 percent of initial applications for unemployment benefits have been filed online. That number jumps to 95 percent for weekly claims.

Pechacek said the department increased project appointment and contractor hiring during the pandemic, especially in adding judges to address claim appeals. According to department data, more than 700 appeals were waiting to be scheduled as of the end of April. That’s down from almost 13,000 appeals a year ago.