Guest Column

It is rare that we are all united by shared experiences and forced to weather challenges together the way we have been in recent months. Unfortunately, hardworking Northwestern Wisconsin families have faced much adversity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the same can be said of families throughout Wisconsin and across the country. The last several months have not been easy for any of us. We are all seeking a return to a sense of security, safety, and normalcy.

Since the pandemic began, thousands of Wisconsinites have had to manage the difficult realities of unemployment. The influx of newly unemployed Wisconsinites flooded the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) with an unprecedented number of claims and phone calls. To address the overwhelming increase in need, DWD dramatically increased their staff and made systemic changes with the goal of improving efficiency.

DWD's Unemployment Insurance Division (UI) reported receiving over 1.5 million calls during the week of March 22, a 6,208% increase from their busiest weekly call volume. According to DWD, the UI call center had 57 employees prior to the pandemic. DWD has now tripled their unemployment staff and is working with two contracted call centers which are staffed by vendors Alorica and Beyond Vision.

The most recent available data from DWD shows the stark contrast between claims received last year versus this year. From the first week of 2020 to the week ending on August 15th, DWD received 969,053 initial claims and 5,611,481 weekly claims. For the same duration of time in 2019, DWD received 187,690 initial claims and 1,113,969 weekly claims.

The impacts of COVID-19 hit home almost immediately. According to DWD’s Local Area Unemployment Statistics, this March, the unemployment rate in Burnett County was at nearly 7% while both Douglas and Washburn counties were at approximately 5%. By April, those statistics had already risen to approximately 22%, 21%, and 18% for Burnett, Douglas, and Washburn counties, respectively. Counties across the state saw similar jumps.

These numbers reveal only part of the story. The dramatic increase in unemployed Wisconsinites is overwhelming to conceive, let alone experience. Many have been forced to endure much waiting, concern for the well-being of their loved ones, and uncertainty about their futures.

In April, my colleagues and I passed Assembly Bill 1038 to address the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill was enacted as Act 185 which waived the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment insurance benefits for those filing from March 2020 through February 7, 2021. While this eliminated one obstacle for receiving benefits, there is much work that must still be done to provide relief to those who are dealing with unemployment.

None of us have experienced anything like this before, and no one was fully prepared for the devastating impacts the COVID-19 pandemic would have on Wisconsin. The process for receiving unemployment insurance is not perfect and challenges remain. However, Wisconsinites have been resilient. Right now, there are many who are struggling to provide for their families, and there are also many who are working hard every day to provide them with the assistance they need. It is my hope that in the coming months, we will be able to work together to find new ways of supporting and uplifting Wisconsinites so our state can come out of this stronger than it has ever been.


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