Michigan legislators want unemployment offices reopened

While 1.3 million jobless claims had been processed in Michigan as of late May, many workers still await resolution of their claims and some have never been paid. (Shutterstock)

It’s time to reopen Michigan’s unemployment offices around the state, say a bipartisan group of lawmakers frustrated with ongoing delays in approving jobless benefits. 

At least 2.2 million residents have been affected by temporary or permanent unemployment following coronavirus, representing nearly 47 percent of all workers in the state.

Jobless workers have struggled to connect with the agency. The online system has crashed and some workers say they’ve had to make hundreds of phone calls before reaching Unemployment Insurance Agency workers to ask questions or resolve a problem.

While 1.3 million jobless claims had been processed as of late May, many workers still await resolution of their claims and some have never been paid. More recently, at least 540,000 claims were frozen as the state launched an investigation into identity fraud.

“Think about what it would be like to go without pay for three months,” said state Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, during a joint House and Senate hearing Thursday in the Michigan Legislature. “I don't think any of us would stand for it.”

 

Cambensy sent a letter on June 12 to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer saying the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency needs to reevaluate how it’s responding to its caseload. It’s an idea the UIA said Thursday it was considering. 

The UIA has been “completely overwhelmed by the largest number of cases filed in the history of the department,” according to the letter signed by 11 other lawmakers, 10 Democrats and one Republican. 

At the same time, legislators’ offices have been overwhelmed by constituents asking for help, with several testifying over several weeks before the select committee. Employees, an employer and a small business owner spoke Thursday, detailing how their claims had been held up  and the difficulty in reaching UIA representatives to find a solution.

Opening the UIA’s 12 regional offices on a limited basis, like the Secretary of State recently did for some types of appointments, would help, Cambensy said. So would staffing phone lines in those offices for callers who have questions that could be resolved in a matter of minutes. 

She said many in her Upper Peninsula district lack Internet access, or prefer to resolve issues in person after trying unsuccessfully to reach UIA representatives in the statewide phone system.

“After three months of helping the UIA get its feet underneath them, we believe the time has come to shift the burden off of legislative staff and get the cases resolved by reopening direct phone lines and having UIA employees begin to take appointment-only traffic,” she wrote.

Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, said Thursday that his impression is that the UIA’s reliance on its online systems is obscuring individual issues within claims, resulting in slow payments.

“Somehow, some way, you’re right,” he told Cambensy. “We have to get those offices back open so we can have a little human interaction.”

The UIA is considering the potential reopening of field offices, said spokesperson Jason Moon. Details on how many or when were not available.  

“We will ensure that we use staff resources efficiently and effectively to continue to best serve UIA customers,” Moon said, adding that the department is working with the Office of the State Employer on it.

Cambensy’s letter underscores broad concerns about Michigan’s overwhelmed unemployment system. It followed a press conference on the same day organized by Michigan United, a coalition of labor, business, social service and human rights organizations. or, business, social service and c

Several legislative moves are in the pipeline and under consideration, including an extension of Michigan’s benefit window. Those types of structural changes would go a long way toward solving payment delays, which go beyond the sheer number of people filing, said Peter Ruark of Michigan League for Public Policy.

The UIA’s computer system continues to be a concern, said Rachael Kohl, a law professor at the University of Michigan. Automation within the system — which is flagging non-traditional applicants who now are eligible for benefits under the CARES Act — is a contributor. 

Michigan’s unemployment system is designed to deny benefits, Kohl said, with the months-long delay in claims processing a sign of that. 

However, Cambensy said she also sees unwillingness among agency staff to accept help from legislators’ staff members who have been working nearly full-time on unemployment issues during the pandemic. She said her office filed 391 cases on constituents’ behalf from May 4 to June 12, requesting a specialist be assigned. Only 29 of the cases have been resolved, she said.

“Because there’s an unwillingness to look at a different way of doing things, [the UIA office’s] plate keeps getting stacked up and they’re not able to clear things off of if,” she said. “All of our staff have found ways to help them … but they’re not invited in to be part of the solution.

“At some point we have to come together and say this is wasting a lot of time.”

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Comments

Kevin Grand
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 7:01am

I would suggest taking some "non-essential" personnel (governor, lt. governor, SoS, AG and the entire democrat party caucus from both chambers) and re-assign them to local UIA offices to help cover the backlog.

They (and the CCP) caused this mess.

Let them help to clean it up.

Don
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 8:40am

That a good one the republicans closed down unemployment office now they want them back open so like back when they can F over the unemployed,,, like standing in line for over two hours only to be told that they missed placed your files and you have to wait another 2 hours!!!

David
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 10:10am

I got through on the phone for the first time in two months..just to have the agent put me on hold then hang up..that's frustrating when you haven't recieved a dime on a claim that back dates to march 23.

R.L>
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 10:57am

Many states besides Mi. were not prepared for this. Some people can not hang on much longer. Many are still employed but with less hours. Clean up the process soon. R.L.

Colleen S.
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 12:21pm

Then those legislators should list their social security numbers like the people who had their identities stolen. Aren't the legislators supposed to pass laws that protect us from crimes? How about attaching SSN's to phone numbers and having verification systems in place to prevent fraud? Same goes for unemployment payments, verify by phone or some other means like an account login, before you pay our taxpayer treasury to criminals that may even be located in other countries.

Danielle Van de...
Sat, 06/20/2020 - 10:01am

I applied for my benefits in April, was asked for identification documents, sent them in and am still waiting for money. I have never been able to get through. I have sent multiple emails and call over a 100 times a day. If UIA are monitoring these emails, maybe you guys can see why I am not getting my benefits or why my family is suffering because you guys can't get your shit together.

Imbadatthinking...
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 1:22am

Yeah no kidding! I’m in the same exact boat as you. Been waiting for about a month and a half. I filled out the fact finding form and then uploaded documents to prove I’m me, emailed a bunch of times, tried the broken chat option several times and have called around 200 times. Supposedly we are supposed to all be cleared and be allowed to access the money we have paid into this stupid system, feed our families and pay our now behind bills, by the 4th of July. I have no faith in this system so we shall see. My place of business was one of the first ordered closed (bar & Grille). Unfortunately, it has become one of the many businesses that couldn’t make it through a shut down like this, and is now permanently closed. The UIA need to get it together and allow those of us that have worked and put into the system to be able to get that money when needed, like now!
This whole time they have said they’ve added hundreds of new employees to handle to influx and now they’ve supposedly added more to help with this “fraud” thing. In my view, having been waiting a month and a half, I call BS on that.
I wonder if they will try to keep all the weeks we have certified but have been unable to access? What if I find a job (I’ve been looking and applying) and stop certifying, will I loose all of the back pay that I’ve certified and haven’t been able to access? That money is needed to pay my bills that have now gotten behind. I’ll need it to get things paid back up. I’ve ran through all of my savings and all of my resources. So trying to play catch up will be hell. Most jobs in the small little town I live in are few and far between, pay minimum wage, and are only hiring for part time and or less.
I wish things could go back to the way it was before this mess. I was really starting to live comfortably, finally. My husband died two years ago and my financials and the lives of our kids and myself had been upside down. I was finally pretty much caught up with everything and able to start building a small savings then boom...Covid!
At least I had a little savings, resources and have a great support system. Some people that have been caught up in this UIA mess don’t have those things and have lost or are in serious danger of loosing everything. They are fully relying on state assistance for food and applying to different community charity organizations to help with shut offs and house payments and those organizations rely on donations and money from the state and are running very low on funds and can only help with a small amount of the bill. Our water companies in the area are fighting in court so our water bills are higher than normal, higher than almost anywhere else, because of a “provisional fee” added for the lawyer fees and court costs. If unable to pay the large water bill, they put the amount that you’re behind onto your property taxes. We all know what happens when you don’t pay your property taxes, you loose your home! People were already in danger of losing their home over the water bill, especially seniors and others on a fixed income (if they are even so lucky to even be able to own their own home). So scary.
Sorry for the novella of a reply. Apparently I had some things to say! Lol

Pauline Rice
Mon, 06/22/2020 - 5:24am

I am a retired/laid off Claims Examiner who last worked for the State of MI UIA in 2004. I have been inundated with phone calls from family and friends asking for my help with their claims during this Pandemic. Why can't the state hire back some of us "retirees" who were laid off when they closed the unemployment offices in MI and went to call centers and online claims? I worked in the Detroit area, then the U.P.

Frank
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 6:41pm

This system is a mess. At least I am still employed, but my employer put me on workshare with reduced hours. Now I find out there is a potential fraud on my SSN. I have submitted the requested ID verification and submitted an if theft claim, but have no clue if this is being processed. At least if I could go in person with my passport, drivers license and SS card, I could verify my ID and hopefully get this mess cleaned up! My state rep has offered to help, but it will likely be weeks before I hear back. In the meantime I have to figure out how to reclaim my identity - if it is even compromised at all.