Wisconsin’s unemployment system moves toward modernization

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

Secretary-designate Amy Pechacek, during an appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show,” said the department pays 84% ​​of unemployment claims in one to three days.

“We are moving forward,” Pechacek said.

The department announced in September that it was entering into a $16.5 million contract with Flexion, a Madison-based software development company, to update the department’s decades-old computer systems and technology.

Pechacek said the department has no intention of ending this partnership.

“We’re going to continue to make these great customer service improvements,” she said.

Pechacek said the department was able to move away from its “outdated” call center in favor of a cloud-based system that provides 24/7 service. She said the department provides services in English, Spanish and Hmong.

“We’re proud of that,” Pechacek said.

DWD struggled during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The March 2020 economic shutdown and resulting influx of claims strained the unemployment system, creating a backlog of hundreds of thousands of claims. Some potential candidates were unable to connect to the department’s call center to complete the process.

In June 2020, job seekers waited an average of 19 days for their claims to be paid, according to DWD data. Some applicants, however, reported much longer wait times.

The implementation of federal pandemic unemployment programs has created another hurdle for the department. According to a report by the Office of Legislative Audit, technological errors led the DWD to overpay millions of dollars in unemployment benefits in April 2020.

Ultimately, Governor Tony Evers fired then-Secretary Caleb Frostman in September 2020, while the department was still processing more than 700,000 claims made since the pandemic began.

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Pechacek highlighted the department’s progress under his leadership.

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

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

“We have artificial intelligence on the backend that pulls that data in immediately, so it’s very efficient,” Pechacek said.

According to the latest departmental statistics, 91% of initial jobless claims were filed online. This number jumps to 95% for weekly claims.

Pechacek said the department has increased project appointing and contractor hiring during the pandemic, particularly by adding judges to handle claim appeals. She said staffing levels at DWD are still higher than they were before the pandemic.

“I think we have adjusted to what is an appropriate level of staff going forward to continue to provide excellent and prompt customer service, but we don’t need the high levels of people we needed at the time. of the pandemic,” Pechacek mentioned.

Pechacek said naming projects gave the department the ability to plan ahead.

“We have permanent regular judges who had, you know, planned to retire,” Pechacek said. “These project positions provide us with a pool of well-trained and hand-picked employees who we can then seek to fill any vacancies should we come across them in the future.”

Pechacek said that although the modernization process is still expected to take years, the department continues to move forward module by module.

“It’s a big project,” Pechacek said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

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