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.
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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.”