One only needs to read the comments on the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s (DWD) Facebook page to understand the frustration of the state’s unemployed workers. Many of the complaints are related to being unable to get in contact with a claims specialist to ask questions about pending claims, denials, eligibility, and back pay. A Facebook group has even popped up where people can share their experiences with the state department.

As of Monday, the total number of unemployment applications in Wisconsin, according to the DWD website, from March 15 through May 23 was 577,213. Additionally, there have been a total of 2.4 million weekly claims filed but only approximately 1.7 million have been paid. According to the DWD website, 11.2% of claims have been denied while 16.4% are still being processed. During this time period, the state has issued roughly $482 million in benefits.

In response to the overwhelming number of claims, the DWD recently announced it secured contracts with outside vendors to assist more claimants faster. A release from the DWD noted two call centers vendors and a processing and adjudication vendor will assist with the calls and processing “the extraordinary number of claims for unemployment benefits” being taken by the unemployment insurance (UI) division.

According to Tyler Tichenor, with the UI communications team, the vendors were not contracted with earlier due to the state’s hiring process.

“For the call center that we are contracting with, we had to follow state bidding processes, which again, are lengthy and required by state law,” he said.

Beginning last month, the department began training more than 55 Alorica staff members who were set to begin working with DWD following a week of accelerated training. When fully staffed, Alorica is expected to have up to 500 work-from-home employees answering calls.

The second call center vendor, Beyond Vision, will employ 40 people who will handle calls specifically related to the federal pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA). This service was anticipated to open June 1.

Furthermore, the DWD is actively recruiting new employees to fill more than 315 positions. Since the onset of COVID-19, the agency has been reassigning its employees to UI and is in the process of receiving additional assistance from other state agencies to help with the enormous workload. Between external vendors, new hires, and transfers into UI, approximately 155 staff started the week of May 11, with approximately 230 more expected to start the week of May 18.

According to Tichenor, when the UI division is fully-staffed to address the claims, there will be approximately 500 employees. He expects this to occur in mid-June.

“It is too early to surmise the increase in capacity but we expect to provide more timely service to more individuals as we increase our staffing in waves through mid-June,” he said.

Additionally, the hours of the call center will expand from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The DWD said to reduce wait times, people whose last names beginning with the letters A-M should call between 7 a.m. and noon; those whose last names begin with N-Z should call from noon to 5 p.m.

Tichenor said each day, an average of approximately 7,419 calls are answered by claims specialists; he did not provide information on a request for the number of calls dialed to the UI not answered by associates each day.

For the calls that are answered, there is an average wait time of 1 hour, 14 minutes before getting to talk with a call center employee, according to the UI communications associate. According to him, the reasons for calls run the gamut but the majority are from individuals who have eligibility issues with their claims.

Tichenor said the department recognizes it is difficult to make contact with a UI claims specialist. Those who qualify for unemployment benefits will be able to backdate their claims as appropriate.

“We are optimistic the addition of the call center vendor and onboarding staff will help with this pain point,” he said.

Furthermore, the UI communications specialist anticipates call volume and the weekly number of claims to decrease as more people return to work as the state begins to reopen.

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