Gov. Tony Evers asked for and accepted Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman’s resignation Friday as unemployment claims in the state backlog continue to pile up.
The move came a few days after DWD released unemployment data that showed total unemployment fell slightly to 6.2 percent in August from 7 percent in July. However, data released earlier this week showed 713,508 unemployment insurance claims are still being processed, a number representing over 96 thousand Wisconsinites — with some claims dating all the way back to March.
The governor has received increased pressure recently from lawmakers over the massive backlog, and was growing impatient with the DWD’s lack of progress.
“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. “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.”
Frostman wrote in his resignation letter that he felt his work was incomplete, but said that he has confidence in the staff he is leaving behind.
“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,” he said.
Corrections Deputy Secretary Amy Pechacek will lead the Department of Workforce Development during the transition to a new secretary.
Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said the move to fire Frostman was overdue, pointing to calls from GOP lawmakers in recent months to find new leadership.
“Governor Evers’ administration and the leadership at DWD have been failing the people of Wisconsin since March,” Kapenga said in a release. “I hope for the sake of the nearly 100,000 people who haven’t received their unemployment checks that the new Secretary-designee fixes this disaster quickly.”
“There is no doubt this leaves another stain directly on Governor Evers’ ability to choose qualified leaders in his administration,” Kapenga said.
An out-of-date system
While Frostman ultimately took the fall for Wisconsin’s unemployment claims mess, previous audits found that he was in a nearly impossible position to begin with.
Reporting from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in early June found that over 100 lawmakers and three separate administrations knew the unemployment system had major shortfalls in its capacity to handle large numbers of claims.
The state designed a seven-phase upgrade in 2007 to help fix the aging DWD system that was built in the 1970’s. But, after spending $23 million in the first phase, the department decided to shelve the upgrade and continue to use the old system.
A 2014 audit showed that up to 80 percent of callers could be blocked from reaching DWD offices during times of high unemployment.
“If the steps that DWD has planned [to ensure calls aren’t blocked] are insufficient in the coming months, DWD may need to take additional action," state auditors wrote in December 2014. However, no upgrade, or patch, was ever put in place.
Evers placed part of the blame on the old system after asking Frostman to resign.
“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,” he said.
The system currently requires a lengthy hand review of each issue that may come up when processing unemployment applications. That adjudication process can take any amount of time based on individual situations, the department has said.
There's currently no estimation for when backlogged claims will be cleared, department officials have said in recent weeks — though Evers hopes the log is cleared by Dec. 31.