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Hope Engen and her husband were pretty near wit's end a year ago when their daycare provider left the business, leaving the couple facing some tough choices.
"I got the list from the county and started calling all the local daycare places and couldn't find a single daycare that had space available for two children," Hope Engen said. "We heard that EverGrow was opening up soon, and the timing worked out great."
The new EverGrow Learning Center, a partnership between the city of Ashland and EverGrow's board developed to help the local workforce find day care, allowed the Marengo couple to keep their jobs and rest assured that their kids were properly looked after during the day.
"I had a few reservations (about moving from an inhome daycare to a larger facility) at first, but everything about the whole experience has been very positive," said Hope Engen, a 10-year manager at the Ashland Bargain Hut.
Positive for Engen, but not always a sure thing.
When EverGrow Learning Center opened its doors on Third Street West in November, it seemed destined for success. Within a few weeks, parents were dropping off up to 70 children each day, with a staff of as many as 14 watching over them.
Then the pandemic hit. In March schools, bars and restaurants shut down and the economy went into a tailspin.
So did EverGrow. Only about
10 kids were coming because laid-off parents didn't need day care. Staff fell to six or seven, and board members wondered if the center would survive.
But the ensuing months proved the Northwest Wisconsin Workforce Investment Board and Ashland Area Development Corp. were right to create the center.
A year after it opened, EverGrow has 91 children enrolled and a staff of 15 — near the facility's capacity of 95 children.
"We are definitely at where we wanted to be," center Director and Administrator Carol Beirl said. "Those first couple of weeks when everything started to shut down, we were kind of low, but I feel we quickly picked up, especially when parents realized that school was going to be closed, and parents had to find care for their kids so they could work."
Another of those parents was Hope Mayotte, a crime victim advocate at the Bad River Indian Reservation, who has been a client since opening day.
"I have six children, and it was hard to find reliable child care for that many children," she said. "Normally when a daycare spot opens up, it is for one or at most two children. I would have to scatter my kids all over the place."
With just two certified childcare providers on the Bad River Reservation childcare is both hard to find and expensive for low-income families on the reservation. The state childcare assistance offered by EverGrow is vital, she said.
That's precisely what the EverGrow board wanted to accomplish when it created the center.
"Opening a new center in the year of a pandemic was a unique challenge, but the role that it played was even more critical," board Vice Chairwoman Mari Kay Nabozny said. "There are so many school-aged children at the center who are allowing individuals to go to work. We had always intended on a school-aged program, we just didn't think it was going to be quite so critical, and the community is blessed to have this when they did, to have this resource available."
EverGrow Treasurer Andy Donahue said right now the center's finances "are right at the markers we want them to be at for sustainment," despite the COVID-19 disruptions.
"Obviously there have been a lot of nuances that have come up, things to make it safer like deeper cleaning, but we have also been able to tap into a lot of state and federal programs to maintain a lot of our financial capability, including the paycheck protection program which was a nice addition that we were able to use for the staff," he said. "Then there has been the funding that has come through the state from the Department of Children and Families that we have been able to use for staffing as well."
The state and federal COVID aid programs eventually will end, but they did their job by allowing EverGrow to weather the COVID storm and make it to its first anniversary.
And the anniversary marks what may be standard operating procedure for some time.
"You have to wear a mask, you have to have your temperature checked before you can head back through the classrooms," Beirl said. "All of the classrooms are doing deep cleanings, and classrooms are staying pretty separate."
EverGrow has had one instance of coronavirus that affected a classroom, she said, when a teacher and a student both tested positive for COVID-19. The remainder of the classroom's students were quarantined for 14 days while the room was closed and cleaned. Beirl said both teacher and student are doing well and the classroom was reopened after five days.
"We told the parents of the affected students that if they felt ill while quarantined, they would need to be tested for COVID-19," she said. "We are making sure the exposure is limited."
Betsey Harries, chairwoman of the EverGrow board of directors said that, all things considered, EverGrow has "had a real strong showing" in its first year.
"We have a center staff and director that are very dedicated and flexible. They brought their entire heart and soul into the success of this organization," she said. "I think the challenge of trying to start a large non-profit, at least by Ashland standards from scratch was pretty daunting, and we handled it. Doing all that in the year of a pandemic is really amazing. We have a lot to be proud of and the future looks bright."
And Mayotte is carrying that message when she goes to work on the reservation each day.
"For a lot of the families that I work with, the number one barrier that they have is childcare," she said. "I've seen huge improvement for my family, but also for the families I have worked with because I was able to refer them to EverGrow Learning Center."
The first product rung up on the cash register at the Red Cliff Fish Co. retail store Monday wasn't a herring or lake trout fillet, it was a hat and T-shirt bearing the company logo.
That's fitting, perhaps, because the opening is worthy of commemorating.
The store and processing plant has been years in the making and represents an enormous step forward for the Red Cliff Band,
Daisy Perez-Defoe, business manager for the fish company, said.
Tribal members have for years been selling their catch to wholesalers who skim off part of the profit for themselves. The new facility allows fishermen to sell their products directly to consumers and other retailers, Perez-Defoe said.
"Our fisherman are all Native American out of Red Cliff and Bad River," she said. "Some of them have 10 individuals on their boats, others just one. They set their nets in the morning and bring in their fish at night that same day. They hand pick them out of the nets, ice them, and we pick them up and process them here in the plant, so our fish are as fresh as you can get."
Not only are the fish fresh, but Perez-Defoe can tell customers where each individual fish was caught and who caught it.
"They can even go down to the dock and meet the fisherman themselves," she said. "It's called Duffy's Dock, and it was all updated with a grant and able to accommodate 10 boats."
The company already has demonstrated its value. In May as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, it distributed more than a ton of free whitefish to residents in Red Cliff, Bayfield and La Pointe, and another 300 pounds went to local food shelves.
"In trying times such as these, it is imperative that we all not only take care of ourselves but also one another," tribal Chairman Rick Peterson said at the time. "This shows it can be done."
As of now, the store is selling only herring — the shirt-and-hat customer also picked up some smoked herring — but it will sell whitefish and lake trout when that season opens again Nov. 28.
The facility also includes a commercial kitchen, and Perez-Defoe intends to make smoked fish spreads and pickled fish there eventually.
"Our assistant manager has his own special recipe for smoking, so it's unique to this company," she said.
For now, though, Perez-Defoe and her two employees are working the bugs out of the new business. By the end of the month, she hopes to have nine or 10 workers and eventually to expand the company's phone ordering to online sales.
"It's a whole new adventure for the tribe to explore," she said. "It really is something we've been looking forward to for years. It has been in the works for over eight years. A lot of hard work has gone into making it possible."
And opening-day sales were brisk enough that Perez-Defoe is optimistic for the future.
"It was a historic moment for the tribe," she said. "We're looking to get our products into different stores and co-ops in the area and then even across the nation. We want Red Cliff fish to be available everywhere."
If you go
What: Red Cliff Fish Co. retail store
Where: 37525 Dock Road, along Highway 13 just south of the Red Cliff casino.
When: Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Something to know: The store is selling herring now but will offer whitefish, lake trout, walleye and burbot when in-season.
As Wisconsin businesses shuttered this spring to slow the spread of COVID-19, jobless filings and phone calls flooded the Department of Workforce Development — too quickly for staffers to keep up. But DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman remained optimistic.
In a May 4 email, Frostman told Unemployment Insurance Division Administrator Mark Reihl to "hang in there."
"If we can get through May, I think we will be cooking with gas with all the new people on board and call centers up and running," Frostman wrote.
Three days days later, Frostman emailed Reihl before a meeting: "We have a great story to tell of our staff working themselves to the bone on behalf of claimants and we've been putting the pieces in place to build that necessary infrastructure to succeed through COVID."
Staring down nearly 400,000 unprocessed weekly claims just after Memorial Day, Frostman told a state Senate committee that his department expected to work through the backlog by early October.
Now three weeks into November, a still-raging pandemic is threatening an economic recovery and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has ousted Frostman. Families are still waiting on jobless claims filed last spring, with many missing bill payments or worse. Among those waiting: 50-year-old Karrie Suhr, who worked at a public pool in Cedarburg and expected to work at Milwaukee's Summerfest before the pandemic hit. She filed her claim in June and has yet to receive benefits. During that limbo she learned her cancer had returned.
"I had to borrow money from my family just to pay my own health insurance to make sure that I was covered for all these cancer treatments,"
Suhr said. "So that's been very emotional."
Wisconsin's unemployment safety net buckled under a stress test. More than 1 million filed initial claims since March 15. Nearly 93,000 applications for regular and federal pandemic aid had to be processed or adjudicated through Nov. 14.
Ben Jedd, a DWD spokesman, noted that 7.7 million weekly claims flooded the department since March 15 — compared to 7.2 million claims from 2016 to 2019.
"DWD has been dealing with more than four years of work in eight months," he said.
Many states have struggled to distribute jobless aid during the pandemic, but Wisconsin fares poorer than most. Wisconsin paid 42.5% of all initial claims filed between March and Aug. 15 — far below the 56% national average, according to an analysis by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.
"There are people who are talking about suicide. Because they're just waiting and waiting — because the backlog is so bad," said Victor Forberger, supervising attorney for the University of Wisconsin's Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic.
"The whole economy is going into a tailspin, because the department is falling through. And I worry about folks — and what's going to happen if fundamental change doesn't happen pretty soon."
Limiting benefits access
The pandemic struck after Wisconsin and other states toughened rules for accessing unemployment benefits — in the name of reducing fraud — and failed to upgrade antiquated computer systems.
Just 32% of unemployed Wisconsin workers accessed benefits in 2016, down from 50% in 2007, according to a 2017 National Employment Law Project study. Nationally, the rate of covered unemployed workers fell from 36% to 27%.
"The systems in various states were at best neglected and at worst sabotaged," said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with the nonprofit.
Beginning in 2011, the Legislature under then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, enacted a series of laws that: created a one-week waiting period for benefits (temporarily waived during the pandemic), increased work search requirements for recipients, disqualified people on federal disability from accessing unemployment compensation and increased criminal penalties for false statements or representations on applications.
Walker also made claims filing more confusing, Forberger said, by removing guidance that helped people navigate the process.
Also behind the backlog: DWD's 1970s-era technology, a vulnerability that lawmakers in both parties have long understood but never fixed.
DWD planned to overhaul its computer system more than a decade ago, but Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's administration pulled the plug in 2007 as the project fell behind schedule and over its $24 million budget.
The department's IT system requires sequential programming, meaning that new benefits programs — such as those adopted by Congress during the pandemic — must be programmed one at a time, delaying processing.
DWD reached out to at least five companies in 2019 to demonstrate replacement software. Cost estimates ranged in the "tens of millions of dollars," Jedd said, and DWD was exploring a funding strategy when the pandemic halted its progress.
Rep. John Nygren, RMarinette and co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance, has criticized Evers' DWD for not formally seeking funding to upgrade the system in its most recent budget request.
While the department did not specifically make such a request, Frostman, in a Sept. 15 letter accompanying the budget request, vowed to work with Evers on funding.
Speaking to reporters in late-September, Evers said DWD was still evaluating an upgrade plan.
Meanwhile, DWD's shift to online-only claims filings have created headaches for some residents, said Forberger. Beginning in 2017, DWD began requiring most claimants to initially file online and retired an automated phone system for filers.
Nygren said the focus on online claims "made the system better, and actually helped get more applications through the process."
But the singular option to file claims online can be a problem in a state where 43% of rural areas lack broadband coverage.
"You have technological hurdles galore," Forberger said, which increases the risk of mistakes that lead to denials.
Call centers 'doomed from the start'
Wisconsin spent at least $21.2 million through September on contracts to expand DWD call centers and staff for claim adjudication and processing. The unemployment insurance division also spent nearly $1.2 million in employee overtime, 10-times levels spent in 2019.
DWD initially assigned experts to answer emails and social media questions, Jedd said. An online chatbot and Frequently Asked Questions posting eventually answered most general questions. Over time, however, email and social media inquiries largely involved individual cases, Jedd said, requiring staff to call claimants — and verify identities — before answering their questions over email.
Residents overwhelmed DWD phone lines with 41.1 million calls from mid-March through June. The department answered just one out of every 200 of those calls, according to a Legislative Audit Bureau report released in September.
The call centers were "doomed from the start," Forberger said.
"If the whole focus is online claims only, and you've made this system incredibly complicated and impossible to use, then of course — people are gonna start calling up, because they don't understand."
In a letter responding to the audit, DWD Deputy Secretary Robert Cherry, Jr. wrote that wait times and rate of unsuccessful calls began to plummet in July as the agency expanded call center capacity.
"After updating our systems and onboarding the additional call center vendor staff, almost all calls have been answered on a daily basis," Jedd wrote in an email.
DWD through September spent more than $14.6 million on call center staff from two outside firms.
Nearly $12.6 million went to the global firm Alorica, which in 2019 shuttered a Green Bay call center and laid off 157 workers while shifting positions overseas. Alorica began answering calls in May but was not fully staffed until July 19, according to the Legislative Audit Bureau.
Some jobless residents questioned the effectiveness of call centers even when calls reach an operator.
Callers might get a useful answer, said Chenon Times-Rainwater, a 41-year-old small business owner in West Bend, Wisconsin, who waited two months on her claim. "Or you would call, and you would get transferred and transferred and transferred. And it would be a three-hour situation."
DWD through July added a total of 681 call center workers, including new hires and shifts between departments and divisions, records show. The department added a smaller number of adjudicators and claims processors (525) who could work through glitches.
Said Times-Rainwater: "It tells me that they spent a lot of money for no progress."
Evers in mid-September asked Frostman to resign as secretary.
"It is unacceptable that Wisconsinites continue to wait for the support they need during these challenging times," he said, blaming Republicans for making it "harder for folks to get these benefits."
Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Amy Pechacek has assumed Frostman's role until a new secretary is appointed.
In search of solutions
A group of Democrats in July unveiled legislation to overhaul the state's unemployment system. The bills would: reverse a ban on benefits for people on federal disability who lose part-time work; permanently eliminate a one-week benefits waiting period; ease work search requirements; and repeal a Walker-era law that eliminated benefits for workers dismissed for "substantial fault" — a violation less serious than misconduct on the job.
Sen. Chris Larson, DMilwaukee, expects lawmakers will formally introduce the legislation in January when they return to Madison.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has drawn criticism for doing little to address the claims crisis — or the pandemic. It has not passed a bill since April 15, making it the least-active full-time legislative body in the country, according to a WisPolitics.com analysis.
Nygren has unsuccessfully called on Evers to use $40 million in federal pandemic stimulus funds to offer low-interest, forgivable loans to people waiting on benefits.
The program would serve only a fraction of those with 93,000 claims still pending or in adjudication, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo. About 10,800 people could get loans of roughly $3,700, for example.
As residents await any fixes to Wisconsin's unemployment insurance woes, Forberger said DWD should follow states such as Massachusetts, which in March began holding virtual town halls to explain the bureaucracy.
In Cedarburg, Suhr now has some income trickling in after starting parttime work at a school this fall. But it's not enough to pay her medical bills as she continues her wait. She expects more folks to feel similar frustration in the coming months.
"COVID is getting worse, and I feel like more and more people are going to probably be applying for unemployment," she said.
Marty Hobe is an investigative producer for TMJ4 News in Milwaukee. Bram Sable-Smith is WPR's Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org), which collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UWMadison or any of its affiliates.