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Tony Evers firing DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman over unemployment claim backlog

Tony Evers firing DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman over unemployment claim backlog

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Gov. Tony Evers on Friday announced the unexpected firing of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman for persistent delays in the processing of unemployment claims since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evers asked for and received Frostman’s resignation effective immediately. The firing comes as the state Department of Workforce Development has increasingly taken heat over the last several months, largely from Republicans, for delays in processing unemployment claims. Some individuals report they’ve waited months without an answer on whether or not their claims will be approved.

“People across our state are struggling to make ends meet, and it is unacceptable that Wisconsinites continue to wait for the support they need during these challenging times,” Evers said in a statement. “It is clear that our unemployment system has faced historic levels of claims these past few months, hindered in part by antiquated technology we inherited, and processes designed by Republicans to make it harder for folks to get these benefits.”

The department last week reported 6.5 million weekly unemployment claims had been filed since March 15. Of those, almost 11%, or 713,000 claims, were still being processed.

Evers described the delays as “unacceptable” last week. He said he hopes all claims are resolved before the end of the year. Claimants have been paid over $3.68 billion in unemployment benefits since March 15.

Evers has grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress on unemployment backlogs despite the hiring of more staff. Evers has selected Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Amy Pechacek to lead the transition until a new secretary is appointed.

“We have continued to add additional state resources to support the DWD, but it is clear that we must have change if we are going to address these problems to get folks their benefits faster,” Evers said. “I am confident Deputy Secretary Pechacek has the leadership and skill sets we need to begin to identify solutions to these issues and to get to work making sure folks across our state can get the resources they need. I appreciate Secretary Frostman’s service to our state and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Top Republicans, who have long criticized the Evers’ administration’s handling of unemployment claim backlogs, were skeptical of Frostman’s firing.

“This should have happened months ago if (Gov. Evers) was actually engaged with what is happening at (the DWD),” said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who serves as co-chairman of the state’s budget committee. “The big question is will anything actually change or is this a desperate move by (Evers) to seem like he is trying to fix the UI backlog.”

Evers’ firing of Frostman is his second high-profile firing of a top official. In December, Evers asked for and received the resignation of Adjutant General Donald Dunbar, the chief of Wisconsin’s National Guard, following the release of a bombshell report that showed the Guard had mismanaged the handling of sexual assault and harassment investigations.

Senate Republicans through their own authority additionally fired Evers’ former agriculture secretary, Brad Pfaff, after a political dispute over delayed funding for a farmer suicide prevention program. The Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Frostman in January, before unemployment skyrocketed.

In May, Frostman said it might take until October to get through the backlog of unemployment claims, depending on staffing levels. Since the pandemic began, Evers provided additional staffing resources to the DWD to assist with a substantial influx in claims. More than 130 DWD employees have been reassigned to the unemployment insurance division, and the DWD now has more than 1,500 individuals working on UI cases, up from 600 previously.

In May, Frostman said staffing needs and an antiquated unemployment program had been the biggest bottlenecks when it comes to processing the crush of claims arising from the COVID-19 shutdowns.

In his resignation letter, Frostman praised DWD employees for their work.

“Of course, I feel like my work is incomplete, but I feel confident that the dedicated, professional team at DWD will continue serving Wisconsin’s workforce through adversity and under immense pressure, including assisting the hundreds of thousands who are out of work through no fault of their own,” Frostman said.

Before the pandemic, the department handled about 40,000 initial claims per week, but the number of weekly claims skyrocketed to more than 300,000 after many businesses shut down or limited their services.

Early in the pandemic, in March and April, unemployment in Wisconsin skyrocketed from 3.1% to more than 14%, but has since declined to just above 6% in August.

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