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Unemployment claims, calls skyrocket in Wisconsin

The state Department of Workforce Development recommends people file online.

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Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development is dealing with a wave of need as businesses shutter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between March 15 and April 6, the department reported receiving 313,068 new unemployment applications, with weekly claims reaching nearly 590,000. The state distributed about $68 million in unemployment benefits. During that same time frame in 2019, the state received 17,748 new applications with weekly claims of 155,000.

"The fact that initial claims ballooned by more than 1,600% illustrates the unprecedented nature of this pandemic and its effect on our economy," DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman said in a news release.

Kristine Porter, bureau director for employment and training, said the Job Service website has nearly twice as many resumes as jobs available — 135,000 to 67,900. That gap is wider than it was during the Great Recession of 2008.

People who are able should sign up and file through the state website due to unprecedented call volumes. The week of March 22, the unemployment division reported receiving more than 1.5 million calls. At its peak, it was receiving 160 calls per second.

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“For a lot of people, they have never had to file for unemployment ever in their careers,” Porter said. “They want to make sure that they get it right.”

The health emergency has created a whole new dynamic for businesses, families and individuals as things change rapidly.

Shannon Olson, the general manager for Barkers Island Inn, understands that feeling. She filed for unemployment for the first time this month. The hotel closed April 3, leaving its nearly 70 employees temporarily unemployed. Walking through the application process that afternoon was a fairly simple process, Olson said, but she had to read the questions carefully due to additional COVID-19-related information.

A popup on the website about “Unemployment and COVID-19” was confusing for Olson and fellow employees because of the second paragraph encouraging people who are self-employed or independent contractors to wait to file under the CARES Act (the federal stimulus bill). It didn’t apply to them because they work for a covered employer.

Job search requirements for people on unemployment in Wisconsin are currently waived per Gov. Tony Evers’ emergency order. Olson said she still had to file a resume on the site, even though she plans to return to the hotel when it reopens. Her resume has already attracted a job offer from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Olson said she's been cleaning, spending time with family — both in person and via FaceTime — and taking daily walks.

"I keep in contact with my staff on a weekly basis. I send out emails just to say, 'How's everyone doing?'," said Olson, who would have celebrated 13 years on the job April 30.

Contacting DWD

Broadband access can be a problem for some Wisconsin residents applying for unemployment, Porter said, especially with Job Centers and libraries closed. The Superior Public Library has boosted its Wi-Fi signal to reach outside the building to the parking lot. It's "Free Wi-Fi" channel is open 24/7.

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People who are unable to access the website and those with questions can call the DWD at 888-780-4237 or the local job center at 715-392-7800. Porter suggested calling later in the week, when call volume typically dips and having all the needed information ready. The deadline to complete an application for unemployment has been extended to 28 days due to the high volume.

Businesses and employers in the area can contact the Northwest Wisconsin Workforce Investment Board at 715-682-7235 for information and guidance.

One of the big questions people on unemployment have is when the additional $600 per week, part of the federal stimulus bill, will begin. It could be as soon as the week of April 26, according to an April 9 news release from the DWD.

Editor's note: Shannon Olson is married to Telegram sports reporter Ken Olson.

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