The state's Department of Workforce Development reported Wednesday, Dec. 30, it has finally cleared its more than nine-month backlog of unemployment claims caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, Gov. Tony Evers announced that Amy Pechacek, who took the helm of the department more than three months ago as transition director, has been appointed to the role of department secretary.

"Today, I am proud to say we have reached our goal to clear the backlog of claims," Pechacek said in a statement. "The tireless work of DWD staff has made it possible for UI to resume its seasonal level of timeliness in January. I look forward to implementing further enhancements to our UI processes to continue to improve services to Wisconsinites who are out of work through no fault of their own."

As of Dec. 26, more than 590,000 claimants in Wisconsin had been paid more than $4.68 billion in unemployment benefits since the pandemic began, according to DWD. All remaining relevant eligibility issues over 21 days old have been assigned for adjudication.

Pechacek, who previously worked as Department of Corrections deputy secretary, joined DWD in mid-September after Evers fired former department secretary Caleb Frostman over ongoing frustrations regarding the state's backlog of unemployment claims. The department has faced skyrocketing unemployment claims since shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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The backlog has prompted criticism and calls for action from state Republicans who have blamed Evers' administration. DWD officials have said an unprecedented number of claims, paired with GOP-authored unemployment laws have complicated the adjudication process and exacerbated delays.

"The DWD has faced historic levels of claims, hindered by antiquated technology and burdensome bureaucracy created by those who always intended to make it harder for folks to access these vital benefits," Evers said in a statement.

"Amy understands that during these challenging and unprecedented times, Wisconsinites are depending on a government that works for them and does so quickly and effectively," he said. "I have great confidence in her leadership and ability to move the DWD and our state forward."

Clearing the state's backlog of claims has been a more than 9-month process, despite DWD staff increases and contracting with third-party call centers.

At the time of Frostman's firing, DWD had logged about 6.5 million weekly unemployment claims since March 15. Of those, almost 11%, or 713,000 claims among nearly 100,000 Wisconsinites, were still being processed.

All told, DWD has processed almost 8.8 million weekly unemployment claims since March 15. To compare, DWD handled 7.2 million claims between 2016 and 2019. Last year the department handled a little more than 287,000 claims.

In an audit released earlier this month, the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found that DWD was responsible for 11 of the 13 weeks it took, on average, for the department to resolve initial unemployment claims filed in the early weeks of the pandemic. The most common reasons for delays involved instances when DWD had not resolved issues despite having all the necessary information to do so, according to the audit.

In September, LAB found that of the 41.1 million telephone calls received by DWD call centers between March 15 and June 30, only 0.5% ultimately were answered. The vast majority of calls were blocked, while some callers hung up before receiving an answer.

Pechacek told the Wisconsin State Journal in November she hoped to clear the backlog by the end of the year. At the time, DWD had just rolled out a partnership with Google Cloud to help remove more than 100,000 holds on backlogged claims, while tens of thousands of additional claims were expected to be resolved in the coming weeks.

In addition to the Google partnership, Pechacek has required some DWD employees to work mandatory overtime and this week DWD announced it would update the unemployment application process to include more user-friendly language this coming spring.

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