Stuck in a Dysfunctional System

Like so many displaced workers stuck in a dysfunctional system, Jennifer Robertson was running out of time — and hope.

The 49-year-old West Allis woman was rapidly losing everything she’s worked so hard for. Robertson, a furloughed chef at a southeast Wisconsin college, had applied for state unemployment benefits.

“I’m on the brink of losing everything,” she said, sobbing. Robertson had a difficult conversation with her credit union. She was trying to save her house, but she was quickly running out of money to pay her mortgage.

“I’m trying to keep optimistic and positive, I try not to get real down,” she said. “But I’m going through my belongings to sell stuff so I have some cash — clothes, shoes. Maybe I can make $5, $10, $15.

“I’m going to lose everything because my state doesn’t give a shit about me,” she said.

The mess at the Evers’ Department of Workforce Development hasn’t gotten any better for thousands of unemployment filers like Jennifer Robertson, despite assurances from the government agency.

State files obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight include row after row of claimants waiting months for the benefits they applied for. These are the victims of the pandemic and the sweeping lockdowns the Evers administration put in place amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

At an Assembly hearing on DWD’s myriad problems, former agency Secretary Caleb Frostman blamed outdated technology and state and federal laws for the problems. But documents obtained show there’s a people problem still plaguing the Unemployment Insurance division. The level of incompetence in many of the cases is astounding.

Robertson says she set her alarm for 7 a.m. every morning to go through the fruitless pursuit of trying to reach someone, anyone at DWD. After calling and calling, and waiting and waiting, she frequently joined thousands of claimants who were dropped from a call center that shuts down at 4:30 p.m.

“I got so frustrated I didn’t call for three days ,” she said.

“People like me, we’re dwindling down on money. We’re going to lose everything. I’m going to lose everything I’ve worked for since I was 18 because of some stupid pandemic, and because our state isn’t helping,” Robertson said, sobbing.

“I’m at a point now where I feel helpless and hopeless.”