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Michigan now second in nation for jobless claims amid coronavirus pandemic

LANSING — The coronavirus pandemic and forced business closures have hit Michigan workers and the state’s unemployment insurance system harder than almost every place in the nation, according to a Bridge Magazine analysis of jobless benefit claims data.

Despite widespread complaints over a sluggish website and slammed call center, the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency successfully processed 817,185 initial benefits claims between March 15 and April 4, second only to the significantly more populous state of California.

 

Roughly 8 percent of all Michigan residents and 17 percent of Michigan’s workforce filed claims over that three-week span, second only to the smaller states of Rhode Island and Hawaii, respectively.  Nearly 2 out of every 10 Michigan workers, and nearly 1 in every 10 residents, have filed claims for job losses since the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19.

“Michigan has gotten hammered” by the pandemic, said Patrick Anderson, head of the Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing. 

He noted the state has so far reported the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country, while residents have generally complied with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order that closed businesses, according to cellphone data mapped by the New York Times.

Anderson’s firm last month projected as many as 1.4 million workers could lose income during the pandemic, “and we’re well on our way to having that grim prediction become reality,” he said Thursday. 

“It is the bloodbath we feared.”

Mass layoff notices filed with the state illustrate the range and location of job losses across Michigan. In recent weeks, Cinemark closed cinemas in Flint, Ypsilanti and Taylor, affecting 162 people. Great Wolf Lodge lost 317 workers. Almost 1,300 employees of The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids lost their jobs across Kent and Barry counties. 

Automotive suppliers across southern Michigan also let workers go. Ken Garff Automotive’s network of three Oakland County auto dealerships stressed in its filing — in all capital letters — that the layoffs would be temporary for its 360 workers. 

Michigan has set records for jobless benefit claims in each of the past three weeks, surpassing the peak of the Great Recession after Whitmer closed bars and restaurant dining rooms in March before issuing a broader stay-home order that shuttered more non-essential businesses. 

 

Governors in more populous Midwest states like Ohio (with 694,779 jobless claims), Illinois (493,475) and Pennsylvania (661,169) have also issued some version of a stay-at-home order, but agencies there have so far processed fewer initial claims than Michigan (817,185).

Michigan typically gets hit harder by recessions than other states because of its economic reliance on durable goods manufacturing, said Don Grimes, an economist at the University of Michigan.

“So we’re always going to get more claims for unemployment insurance, partly reflecting the fact that our unemployment rate is going to be much higher than the nation.” 

U-M economists are now projecting Michigan will lose 1.2 million payroll jobs through mid-year, which will cause the state’s unemployment rate to skyrocket to 23 percent, surpassing the state's previously recorded high of 16.4 percent in 1982.  By comparison, they expect the national unemployment rate to top out at 14 percent during the pandemic.

The good news: The federal government’s $2 trillion rescue package, including expanded unemployment benefits and the “paycheck protection program” for small businesses, should speed up the eventual recovery. 

Michigan will replace three-quarters of those lost jobs by the third quarter of 2022, according to the new U-M forecast. Still, the state will not be fully recovered by the end of 2022. 

“Some businesses are going to be shut down, and some employment relationships are going to be destroyed,” said Gabe Ehrlich, associate director of the university’s research seminar in quantitative economics. “It takes those people time to find new jobs.”

Really, really slow

Whitmer last month expanded unemployment benefits to more workers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, waived some application requirements and gave residents 28 days to file. A subsequent $2 trillion federal relief package extended unemployment benefits to four months and will pay jobless residents an extra $600 per week. 

The state has not yet started to provide benefits to self-employed, gig workers and 1099-independent contractors made eligible under the federal package, saying it is waiting on guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor.  Still, more workers have filed jobless claims in the past three weeks than in all of 2018 and 2019 combined.  

The crush of claims has at times overwhelmed the state’s unemployment filing system, frustrating applicants like Eddie Key, who managed to get through two weeks ago but is bracing for slowdowns after another 384,844 residents filed last week

Key lives in Pittsfield Township, near Ann Arbor. Until COVID-19 shut many retail businesses, he commuted to his sales job at MotorCity Harley-Davidson in Farmington Hills. A day after his layoff, he tried for hours to access the state’s system. 

“I couldn’t get on all day,” he recalled. “The system was really, really slow, even late at night.”

Now, as his layoff reaches the two-week point, it’s time to call in again for his biweekly certification. He tried more than once to get through, but it didn’t work. He thinks he’s found a solution: “I’ll wait until really, really, really late at night.”

Key, who said he has been among the top Harley salespeople in the United States, is trying to be patient during the inconvenience. His wife is still working and the couple are empty-nesters, which helps them bridge the unexpected job loss. He’s got co-workers who aren’t as fortunate.

“I get it. I’ve been there,” Key said. “I think a younger me would have been a lot more frustrated. 

“If I were in a more dire situation, I’d be panicking.”

Despite similar complaints, Grimes, the economist, said the issues here do not appear as serious as “horror stories” in other states like Florida, where swarms of residents this week broke social distancing guidelines to line up for paper unemployment applications after a website crash.

“It may be that a lot of other states, particularly Florida, would have had much higher claims if their system was working,” he said. 

Michigan has traditionally had a more robust unemployment system than other states, and one that many residents have experience with, Grimes said.

“Because we’ve gone through all of these recessions, we sort of have it as more of a mainstay of our social service support system,” he said.

Officials note the state has responded to the flood of claims by increasing web server capacity to handle the swell online traffic, asking residents to file during off-peak hours and only on certain days, adding call center hours and hiring new staff. 

The Michigan call center typically had about 130 employees prior to the pandemic, according to the state. As of March 30, there were 300 staff members answering calls, and officials estimate there will be roughly 500 call center workers by the end of this week. 

“The third straight week of record unemployment claims shows the deep impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on Michigan working families,” Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Jeff Donofrio said Thursday in a statement. 

“We’re committed to making sure every eligible Michigander receives their full unemployment benefits during this crisis. The only way we’ll be able to turn the corner economically is to slow and stop the transmission of this virus.”

New call center hires

New call center workers include third-party contractors, staffers from the Michigan Works agency and additional hires, Donofrio said earlier this week.  The state is also asking call center retirees to return to the job, Unemployment Insurance Agency Director Steve Gray told Wayne County residents last Friday in a telephone town hall. 

Those changes are in response to a change in call volume that has staff working around the clock, according to spokesperson Jason Moon. He said Thursday that the department has been averaging at least 75,000 callers per day, compared to early March, when it may have peaked at 2,000 daily calls. 

Gray, who took over the agency in May, encouraged anyone who can to file claims online. 

“We want to save those phone lines for people that don’t have Internet access or are having some other trouble logging in,” Gray said. “We will be backdating benefits to your last day of work, so even if you haven’t been able to get in and file, you’re not going to get penalized.”

Donofrio on Tuesday estimated that 95 percent of all applicants are “going through and filing their claims without any problem.”  

But even if that’s true, with 817,185 claims over the past three weeks, that means more than 40,000 residents had difficulty filing for benefits.  Even for people who do get through online, the state acknowledges website load times “will be slow” and is encouraging users to only click a link one time, then wait for a response. 

Several frustrated applicants have contacted Bridge Magazine to say they were unable to log in to the state unemployment website, were locked out or experienced other irregularities that required human assistance. 

Typically, those claimants could visit an unemployment office or Michigan Works office in person, but those locations have been closed as part of the state’s attempt to slow the spread of the virus and encourage social distancing. 

For those people, “really the phone lines are the only alternative,” Donofrio said. 

The state is in the process of creating a dedicated email address that will pop up if users have problems on the website, according to Donofrio and Gray, who have both publicly thanked residents for their patience while trying to use the system. 

Residents with last names that start with letters A-L are asked to file online claims anytime Monday, Wednesday or Friday and call center claims between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Applicants with last names that start with M-Z are asked to file online Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday or by phone between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday.

If those times don’t work, the state says anyone can try to file online Saturday, and the call center will be open to all on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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