By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — An unknown number of unemployed people in Wisconsin received too much, or not enough, in benefits from the state Department of Workforce in late April as it worked to process additional money in federal aid to help those suddenly out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, an audit released Wednesday found.
The Legislative Audit Bureau said the department, which has faced intense criticism from Republicans for not processing unemployment claims more quickly, should determine how many people were sent incorrect amounts and how much, then report back by Aug. 14. The department is carrying out all of the audit’s recommendations, said agency Secretary Caleb Frostman.
The department announced on April 30 that it had overpaid unemployment recipients, but did not say how much was paid or to how many people. The overpayments were associated with retroactive benefits and the new temporary $600 a week in additional federal benefits made available to help address layoffs caused by the pandemic, the audit said.
The audit identified $21.2 million in overpayments through direct deposit and debit cards. The department said it canceled nearly all of the overpayments, about $19.6 million, before the money was received by recipients.
Only payments to recipients with accounts at U.S. Bank were deposited. That amounted to about $4.8 million to 2,340 people, the audit said. The department said it recovered all but about $115,000 of those incorrect deposits.
However, there may have been even more overpayments and underpayments to an unknown number of people on April 28 and April 29, the audit said. It recommended that the department determine the total amount in underpayments and overpayments and report back to the Legislature’s Audit Committee by Aug. 14. Frostman agreed and said the agency would do that.
The audit also called for those who were underpaid to receive what they were owed in unemployment benefits “as quickly as possible.” Frostman said that earlier this month the department manually issued nearly $90,000 in payments to 52 people who were underpaid and is working on an automated process to pay the rest by Aug. 14.
“The actual payment processing should be the least difficult part of getting claimants their benefits,” said Republican state Rep. Samantha Kerkman, co-chair of the Legislature’s Audit Committee. “It is alarming to find that there were either no process controls to ensure that payments do not process twice or that they were ignored.”
Sen. Rob Cowles, the other committee co-chair, said he appreciated the department’s willingness to make changes recommended by the audit, but that he still had concerns about the unemployment program. That includes how quickly claims are processed, benefit payment delays and difficulty connecting through the phone system, Cowles said.
About 141,000 have not received unemployment benefits they applied for as the state continues to work through a backlog of cases and claims that surged to unprecedented levels in March as businesses shut down due to the virus. The Department of Workforce Development has processed about 3.7 million claims in four months, more than twice as many as it did in all of last year.
The department has tripled its staff who process claims and resolve disputes and also added call center staff to help with those calling for assistance.