Two years and thousands in debt later, the Stoughton hairdresser is still fighting for pandemic unemployment benefits

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STOUGHTON, Wis. – After two years and thousands of dollars in credit card debt, Falicia Block still has little of the unemployment relief promised to thousands of people when the pandemic shuttered her hairdressing practice for nearly ten weeks from March 2020.

The Stoughton stylist opened her own business just months before the pandemic hit, renting her chair from another hair salon in town. But specialized circumstances — in her case, providing part-time nail services at that salon in addition to her freelance work — made her claim for benefits hugely complicated and, three appeals later, still have not been resolved.

“I’m pretty much our family’s main earner,” Block said. The bills were coming in, she still had to pay the rent for her chair, still had to pay the insurance. “We put it on our credit cards because we were told we would get unemployment benefits, they would help us, the state would be there.”

Two years later, credit card interest is still mounting on the balance accumulated during those weeks of shutdown, and Block is still waiting for benefits that have yet to come.

Job-related complications

From the state’s perspective, everything Block properly asked for was paid for. In a statement, the Department of Workforce Development said it paid her $876 in regular unemployment benefits and an additional $1,200 from an expanded federal benefit, payments that covered the first three weeks. for which she had applied.

But three weeks after closing, the salon owner got a federal loan from the government to help pay salon workers while the storefront remained closed, and Block — who provided part-time services to the salon — took advantage. a little. over $250 per week. It helped, although it wasn’t close to the amount of income the family needed to stay afloat.

But the loan meant Block feared a ‘double-purge’: Several people, including DWD officials, had told him that applying for regular unemployment benefits while receiving the Paycheck Protection Program loan would be a fraud. . To that end, in May, according to the state’s schedule, she filed for the federal pandemic unemployment assistance program that was supposed to cover the self-employed — where most of her income came from working. before the pandemic and which she currently did without.

From there, his candidacy turned into a confusing sleight of hand with the state. A paperwork error was resolved in a subsequent appeal that found her eligible for regular unemployment, another ruling disqualified her from PUA, and then a subsequent appeal in May 2021 declared her eligible for PUA “if she is otherwise qualified”.

She believed the latest appeal ruling would wipe out the more than $6,000 she saw waiting in her unemployment scorecard to be paid to her. She waited – assuming the resistance was caused by the backlog of appeals the state was experiencing. But later in 2021, she realized the payments weren’t coming in and contacted her local representative for help.

Block points towards benefits still pending in his DWD account (WISC-TV Photo)

“It’s very confusing,” she said. “I literally want to cry.” After more than fifty calls with the state and about 20 people telling her 3-4 different things, she’s now being told that she was eligible for regular unemployment benefits all along, benefits she hadn’t applied for when she started. of the PUA request.

In a statement, the DWD noted his eligibility for regular benefits. “At her appeal hearing, the administrative judge found that the petitioner was unemployed due to COVID-19 and eligible for the PUA if otherwise qualified,” a spokesperson wrote. “In this situation, the plaintiff is not eligible for the PUA because she is eligible for regular unemployment insurance.”

“It’s frustrating because I tried to be patient and do what I thought was the right thing to do by giving them their time,” she said, referring to the period that ended. elapsed after the final decision when she was waiting for payments but assumed they were trapped. in a backlog. “Now I’m being told a bit that it’s my fault that I waited so long.”

User errors, miscommunication, complicated applications for thousands

Block is far from alone. Hundreds of thousands of people who tried to manage unemployment benefits in Wisconsin during the pandemic faced initial backlogs to get payments, with many months of waiting before they got anything while that bills were piling up as an outdated system was suddenly overloaded with the influx of requests.

RELATED: She quit her job to care for her children during Covid. Now Wisconsin is demanding a $30,000 reimbursement for unemployment benefits.

Like Block, thousands more faced further delays as appeal backlogs piled up from minor errors, amid tens of thousands of people trying to navigate a complex system made more complicated by the addition of several federal programs that the state was responsible for administering.

Her situation highlights the lingering issues some still face two years later, especially those who had more complex employment situations or basic errors that complicated their benefits. In her case, she believes that the initial confusions about her freelance chair rental at the salon for which she also provided part-time services complicated her application.

The DWD sent an initial timeline of Block’s case in response to questions from News 3 Investigates, but did not respond to follow-up questions about how the PPP loan may have impacted his eligibility for regular benefits, or how her part-time job impacted her eligibility. when considered with his freelance work.

Eligibility questions regarding the most appropriate benefits program continue to plague many Madison-area attorney clients. Labor and employment attorney Victor Forberger, who handles hundreds of complicated unemployment cases, says many of them boil down to paperwork errors or confusion about the program being applied for. In Block’s case, she says she was told PUA was the right program, but over the course of her case, she was told 3-4 different things by as many as 20 different people.

Forberger believes that poor portal information and incomplete training for hastily hired DWD employees contributed to the early problems that still plague today. For example, Block had never been told of another federal program she might have been eligible for under her mixed employment status — Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation (MEUC).

“There’s tons of bad advice and tons of confusion,” Forberger said. “Unfortunately, these are the claimants currently dealing with arrears and overpayment notices and still trying to get benefits dating back to March 2020.”

RELATED: For Wisconsin residents facing thousands in unemployment debt, monthly payments could cost hundreds

As of January 4 of this year, the DWD said more than 55,000 people had an outstanding overpayment balance of more than $50. Only 5,590 had active payment plans in place (some may have multiple overpayments). In 2020 and 2021, tens of thousands of people incurred overpayment balances after the state checked eligibility and found errors that resulted in too many benefits being paid.

Much of the appeals backlog that built up in 2021 has to some extent been cleared. And at the start of January, less than 400 arbitration issues were still outstanding from 2020.

Separately, there were 393 pending arbitration issues from 2020 to 1/6/2022 due to unresolved or unverified claimant identity. There will still be issues as of 2020 as the UI continues to address identity issues.

Since Block contacted News 3 Investigates, there might be light at the end of the tunnel. On Wednesday morning, she was contacted by a DWD officer who helped file backdated claims for the period owed to her. There are still steps to go and the mixed communications have worn her down.

“I don’t feel like I’m being listened to”

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