In asking for Caleb Frostman’s resignation as DWD secretary, Gov. Tony Evers says it was clear “that we must have change” if his administration is going to clear up a lingering backlog in the state’s unemployment program.
Evers today asked for and received Frostman’s resignation after seeing no significant progress on the backlog despite the state nearly tripling the number of people working to take and process claims. The last update from the agency showed nearly 100,000 people were still awaiting checks.
“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.
State Rep. John Nygren, who has been a persistent critic of the administration over the backlog, said he was surprised it took Evers this long to make a change in leadership considering the ongoing problems. The Marinette Republican said he wanted to see whether this would prompt a change in how quickly DWD can resolve the backlog.
“I think it’s a good first step,” Nygren said. “But just like the ‘buck stops here,’ it doesn’t stop with Caleb Frostman in my opinion.”
Frostman was the executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corp. before winning a 2018 special election for a state Senate seat in northeastern Wisconsin. He lost the seat in a rematch with GOP Rep. Andre Jacque that November, and Evers tapped him in early January 2019 to lead DWD.
Frostman didn’t immediately return a message WisPolitics.com left on his cell phone this afternoon. But he wrote in his resignation letter, “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.”
Corrections Deputy Secretary Amy Pechacek will lead the Department of Workforce Development during the transition to a new secretary, the guv’s office said.
A source close to the guv’s office said Evers became frustrated about the lack of progress in eliminating the backlog despite the additional resources that have been added to the Unemployment Insurance division since the surge of claims brought on by the pandemic.
During a late May hearing before a state Senate committee, Frostman testified it could take until October to resolve the backlog of claims. At the time, 11.2 percent of weekly claims were awaiting processing.
In early June, DWD announced it had contracted with two vendors to help answer calls and process claims in addition to moving state employees from other agencies to the UI division. That led to more than 1,500 people working on unemployment claims, up from 600 previously, according to the guv’s office.
But the latest update from the Department of Workforce Development this week showed that backlog had only been reduced to 10.9 percent of claims received. More than 98,000 people who have applied for unemployment were still waiting for their claims to be resolved. Those applicants had some 160,000 issues that required adjudication before the claims could be paid.
Altogether, DWD has received applications for more than 6.5 million weeks of unemployment since mid-March. The backlog leaves more than 710,000 weeks awaiting processing, often for adjudication.
Along with the persistent backlog, the agency faced criticism after initially warning that those applying for an additional $300 in federal unemployment benefits may have to pay back the money if Congress approves new enhanced payments. The agency on Monday pulled back the warning following media inquiries and a follow-up communication with FEMA, which is funding the benefits that President Trump created through executive action.
A FEMA administrator sent the agency an email Sept. 11 saying it was “not entirely inaccurate” to warn the benefits might have to be repaid. But Jason Gamble added “there is no reason to believe that any additional programs approved by congress would create a duplication of benefits and require individuals to pay the funds back,” according to a copy of the email shared with WisPolitics.com.
He added, “I think there is some concern that the statement on the claimant site could deter eligible individuals from applying for benefits.”
See today’s release here.
See Frostman’s resignation letter here.