When the coronavirus pandemic first struck Wisconsin, Noel Ray-Ortega panicked.
Laid off from her job at a small salon in Milwaukee, she applied for unemployment and started receiving payments without issue.
Ray-Ortega was worried, though, about paying bills and keeping things normal for her and her son, so she took a seasonal job that advertised as needing an employee to work about 30 hours a week. It was the perfect opportunity to make a bit of money before her salon job reopened.
The seasonal job turned out to be much more than 30 hours a week, though. She found herself working well over 40 hours some weeks and as many as 60. It was impossible to manage without childcare, she said, so she left the position and went back to filing for unemployment. Next, her account was put under review because of the seasonal gig.
The last unemployment check she received was May 1. She didn't hear from an adjudicator until October, and then her claims were denied.
She appealed the denial and is now waiting to hear the result, which could take five months or more, she said.
Ray-Ortega is one of thousands of Wisconsinites waiting on appeals, on a claim she believes should have been easily approved.
"I'm obsessed, always checking my unemployment portal," said Ray-Ortega, who returned to her salon job in June but is still catching up with bills after 10 weeks without income. "I've been looking up past hearings and legal documents, looking for the verbiage (appeals judges) like to hear, and what they don't like to hear. It's just crazy."
'People are trapped'
Currently, more than 65,000 claimants are waiting in the backlog for adjudication, adding up to nearly 507,000 weekly claims, according to department data.
That number is down about 4,700 individual claims since the last data release, and after the announcement by interim director Amy Pechacek that the backlog will be cleared by the end of the year.
But those numbers don't tell the whole story, said Victor Forberger, an unemployment appeals attorney. The numbers given out weekly by the department don't include those who have had claims denied and are now waiting in another backlog to have their appeal heard.
The department doesn't keep data on how many claims it denies, but a spokesperson said nearly 16,000 people are waiting on appeals currently.
Many of the denials are due to mistakes, Forberger said, because the questions claimants fill out when they apply can be confusing. It's frustrating to know the system was set up that way years ago and hasn't been addressed.
"People are befuddled by the claims process, they're answering questions in the not completely right way," he said. "They're liable for mistakes."
In a few cases Forberger has been involved in, people have been denied claims based on tiny mistakes, and ended up winning their appeals when the claims were looked at in whole. It took the claimants about nine months each before they were able to access their benefits, in the middle of an international pandemic.
"People are trapped," he said.
Forberger said he's concerned about what the appeals backlog will look like, too, if the department meets its goal of catching up with weekly claims by the end of the year. Right now, with the number of appeals waiting, it will likely take about four months to finish them all. But with an influx of new appeals, that timeline is only extended.
"This backlog is only going to grow," he said. "It's preposterous. It's even worse than it was in August."
Typically, an appeal takes a bit of time, said Kelsey Kerr, an attorney at Alan C. Olson & Associates, a firm that specializes in taking employment cases. The process begins with the person who has been denied benefits filing for an appeal within a few weeks of their denial and then in four to six weeks, a hearing is held in front of an administrative law judge, she said.
Testimony is heard from both the employer and employee, as well as witnesses. After the hearing the judge will write out a ruling, which is sent by mail to the employer and employee.
The backlog in that process, Kerr said, means she's handling cases now that were appealed in mid-August, putting the appeals court behind about four and a half months.
"Everything is just going a lot slower," she said.
Even the decisions from the judge are taking longer to arrive at. Typically, an employee knows the results of their hearing within a week or two. Now, it's taking almost a month.
"It's definitely an issue. My clients are unemployed and they need to get this money. Some haven't been working since March," she said. "Having this delay, they're continuing to have to live without an income or on a very small income."
When the checks finally do come in, they may be large, but the money doesn't go far when there are months of bills to pay off.
"It just doesn't make up for it," she said.
'I can't wait another seven months'
Crystal Yelk, who spoke with the Journal Sentinel for a previous story on unemployment, is now waiting on an appeal, too.
She waited nearly seven months for her unemployment claim to be looked at by an adjudicator, only to be denied and told she should apply for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, designed to extend unemployment benefits to people who typically wouldn't qualify for them. She did that and filed for an appeal with the department, as well.
But now she's in the same position she was before being assigned to an adjudicator.
"It's been all these months and now I'm just waiting again," she said. "I'm back to being pretty upset. I don't know what to do."
Yelk, who works as a special education assistant for the Oregon School District, is back at work now, but is still facing months of bills and credit card debt from the time she spent without a paycheck. There is no timeline for when she'll find out more about her case, and she assumes the wait will once again be long.
"I can't wait another seven months," she said. "I didn't want to be on unemployment. I was forced on unemployment. And they just have no help and no answers."
Francis Pirman, 63, of Green Bay also endured months of waiting for his benefits due to the appeals process.
He was fired in January from his job at a grocery store over a misunderstanding, his wife, Sara Pirman, said. He applied for unemployment and was approved before the pandemic hit, but his former company appealed the decision of the department several times, tying up his unemployment checks.
Then, adding in the department's spike in workload from the pandemic created a bigger wait. Between July and November, Francis Pirman received no money. He tried to call the department a few times, but because he had difficulty hearing, the phone calls weren't helpful. He won the final appeal, but the money didn't come.
"It was horrible," Sara Pirman said. "My husband suffers from depression and we had to deal with this. He felt horrible."
Shortly after talking with the Journal Sentinel, Francis Pirman heard back from the department. His money was released to him in mid-November. At that point, he had found a new part-time job, but planned on retiring later this year.
Sara Pirman said the department should be doing more to help those waiting on appeals. There needs to be some sort of way to get information, she said, even if it's just that they'd be hearing from a representative in the future rather than having to log on to the portal and make calls to the department, only to get no information and be left waiting with no end in sight.
"I think the state owes all of these people for what they've put us through," she said.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SchulteLaura.
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