Antigo woman waits months for help as her savings and health dwindle due to COVID-19

Published: Oct. 29, 2020 at 9:24 PM CDT
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ANTIGO, Wis. (WSAW) - Carmen Nichols, a 34-year-old single mother of two young children from Antigo, is still waiting. She is waiting for the unemployment benefits she filed in April. She is waiting for her health to improve after a serious case of COVID-19 in August. She is waiting for help from the government leaders elected to represent her.

“There’s (sic) just no words to put how you feel when you get to the point when there’s nothing left,” she said.

Waiting on unemployment - The beginning

While 92% of unemployment claims have been resolved since March, the Department of Workforce Development indicated Nichols is among nearly 4,000 other people waiting since the spring. Specifically, there is one claim pending from March, 267 claims from April, and 3,671 from May left to be resolved, or 2% of the total claims from those three months.

As of last week, there are 795 permanent, limited-term employment, and project staff at DWD, 108 temporarily reassigned staff, and 187 vendor staff handling adjudications for unemployment claims.

“Entry-level adjudication staff is assigned roughly 35 cases per week,” Tyler Tichenor, DWD communications specialist advanced told 7 Investigates. “Senior staff are assigned at least 55 cases a week. However, the standard number assigned does not reflect the amount of work produced. Though staff have the expectation of a certain amount of cases, many take on much more.”

“One conversation I had with a lady at unemployment," Nichols began, "she said that their wait time currently right now is four to five months to receive unemployment.”

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, Nichols had taken a part-time job at a potato farm, but she only worked there for a few days because her employer wanted her back full time. So, she quit the part-time gig. Not long after her employer, Johnson Electric Coils Company went to a week-on-week-off schedule for employees to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Nichols filed for unemployment on April 25. She was told it was red-flagged due to quitting the part-time job and has been pending since waiting for an adjudicator to investigate it.

“Because I still was not receiving any unemployment, I asked my boss at the regular, my regular employment, if she could please put me back on because I knew, I knew that it wasn’t getting unemployment,” Nichols explained.

Her boss let Nichols come back full time starting the second week of July. She was only working a few weeks before she started to feel sick.

Waiting on wellness - The diagnosis

“On, it was like the 10th or 11th of August, I woke up with just a scratchy throat and then I just every day just felt exhausted,” she described. “(The)13th I woke up with hives, and a pain in my chest when I breathe in deep, so I ended up going into the clinic.”

She was in the emergency room for a few hours to check on these symptoms. She tested positive for COVID-19 and was sent home with an inhaler.

“They actually told me at the ER that they weren’t doing an MRI because they’d have to sterilize another room,” she noted.

She did not have to be admitted to the hospital, but she said her reaction to the disease was terrifying.

“I don’t know how many people my age have a will, and I made one; because there were days I didn’t think I was going to wake up,” she admitted.

Even months after her initial diagnosis, she is left with a heart problem she did not have before called inappropriate sinus tachycardia, which means she has an irregular heartbeat.

“When it’s too low, I feel like an elephant sitting on my chest,” she explained. “When it’s too high, I’m short of breath.”

She also now has persistent, uncontrollable tremors, adding there are “days where I wake up, and I can’t even write my name.”

She has migraines and she said if someone touches her head she instantly breaks into tears because it is so painful. Doctors told her they believe it has something to do with inflamed nerves. She also often gets dizzy now.

She has extreme exhaustion, making everyday physical tasks, like doing the laundry, wiping her out for a full day after.

As a coil winder and cutter, her doctor has not cleared her to go back to work since her diagnosis.

“Cutting on a bandsaw with the shakes that I have, would be a great idea. I don’t want to lose a finger," she laughed.

Doctors also do not have anything to help treat her ails. She has been told to wait as doctors and scientists look for treatment options for this new COVID-19 disease.

“So it’s like everywhere you go, it’s you wait for an appointment; you wait to get better; you just wait, and it’s, it’s frustrating,” she sighed.

Still waiting on unemployment - Desperate for help

“They just kept telling me, ‘We can’t give you any timeline. I don’t know what else to tell you. Go to food pantries. Get help elsewhere,’” she recalled after making countless phone calls to DWD.

Nichols is still waiting on her first set of claims. She filed for unemployment again after her two weeks of paid sick time finished, but she was told that will be reviewed in the order it is received, so that could be months. She was told by a DWD supervisor that her first claim did not even reach an adjudicator until Aug. 20 and it had not been reviewed for weeks after that. The supervisor told her adjudicators were supposed to reach out after about 10 days, but Nichols was always the one making the calls and she had never spoken with an adjudicator.

She is on family medical leave, but she has not been receiving a paycheck since her paid sick leave ended Aug. 28. She has been paying bills with her savings, but when 7 Investigates interviewed her Oct. 8, she only had about $300 left, which is not enough to even pay her mortgage due Nov. 1 let alone her car payment, utilities, and other bills.

Desperate, she and her mother reached out to every elected official she could think of including nearly all of the state legislators, Rep. Tom Tiffany, Gov. Tony Evers, and Pres. Donald Trump.

“I emailed it (a letter about her situation) to every single one in the legislature and three-quarters of them told me that it wasn’t their jurisdiction, there’s nothing they could do and Donald Trump said the same thing,” she said.

The governor’s office told her they would do what they can. Her state assembly representative, Mary Felzkowski, looked into it for her and she told Nichols DWD was doing the best they could and trying to hire more people and there was not much they could do. A DWD supervisor later told her in late September-early October that they would try to get her on an urgent list after legislators sent their office her letters.

She is still waiting for her first claim to be resolved.

Waiting, searching for help

She is on food stamps and Badgercare covers her medical expenses, but she has not been able to find assistance for her other bills without becoming delinquent on them first.

She has reached out to numerous government assistance and other programs meant to help people in times of need, but she was told: "If you don’t have a foreclosure, or if you don’t have three months behind bills, they won’t help you.”

7 Investigates searched for programs fitting her needs and situation, and reached out to 2-1-1 Wisconsin for help in that search. There was not much. 7 Investigates passed along two possible options, the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program and the Foundation for Rural Housing. Nichols said the rural housing did not fit. She applied for the energy assistance program, but it is one-time assistance.

“So because I’m a responsible mother, why is it that us as Wisconsin citizens, as United States citizens, have to live on welfare to get any help? I mean, during this time, it shouldn’t matter if you’re behind or not," she said. "I just don’t want my, I don’t want my life for my credit to go down because I know I worked hard to get it to where it is.”

Another unfortunate sidenote, Nichols said she was trying to refinance her mortgage, which would have saved her quite a bit of money, but it had to be rescheduled because it was scheduled during the time she was infectious with COVID-19. Now, because it is uncertain as to when she will go back to work, she cannot refinance.

7 Investigates asked Gov. Evers what people in situations like Nichols should do. He said the new DWD partnership with Microsoft should help.

“It’s our goal to clean up any back, back, people who have been waiting for months and months and we’re in the process of doing that," he responded during a Department of Health Services media call. "We have a goal to clean that up by the end of the year and hopefully before.”

“I feel they failed me, I mean, in this situation,” Nichols urged.

She said she wants to go back to work, but do not even feel 60% well most days. She is hoping to feel at least 80% well before she tries to gradually come back to Johnson Electric Coils Company.

“I kind of feel what if I do go back, and I’m sick Two days later, like I do here with laundry, I mean, how often is my boss gonna allow me to call in sick,” she questioned.

In the meantime, she started her own business selling identity theft legal services to ensure she has some money coming in. She also started a GoFundMe, which has now accrued enough funds to ensure she can make her next mortgage payment.

The emotional toll

“The emotional burden for me is almost worse than being sick," said Nichols. “I am so stressed about keeping something over their (her kids) head because I don’t know if I’m going to be having to go back living with my parents, and I don’t want them to see that.”

She has insomnia, only sleeping two hours a night, partially due to worrying about what she is going to do. She is trying to potty train her 2-year-old so she no longer has to spend money on diapers.

“I want them to know that I, that I can take care of them always," she said.

“I drive past a restaurant and my kids, ‘Oh, Mom, I want McDonald’s.’ ‘No, I don’t have money.’ ‘We never have money.’ ‘Well, I mean, you’re gonna have to understand how life is, you know, I’m sorry,’” she added.

"It’s like I failed them as a mom. So it’s like, for me it’s, it’s the end for me,” she said.

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