Michigan unemployment agency resumes in-person office visits
Michigan’s jobless workers once again have a chance to talk to an unemployment agency worker in person, more than a year after the Legislature and workers rights advocates started pushing for the change.
The offices will reopen on Wednesday, June 30, but only for people who make appointments online starting on Thursday, June 24.
The offices had closed to in-person visits during the early days of the COVID-19, just as waves of residents lost their jobs due to the virus, state-ordered restrictions and other factors related to the pandemic.
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While the number of jobless workers in the system now is one-third of the 2.1 million unemployment peak in April 2020, the state Unemployment Insurance Agency continues to navigate the effects of 5.2 million total claims created since mid-March 2020.
During the pandemic, the agency was criticized for how it managed the crush of assistance requests, resulting in a number of Legislative hearings and the resignation in November of its director, Steve Gray.
Jobless workers seeking assistance reported having to make dozens of phone calls — or more — to reach a UIA employee. Frustrations mounted as system glitches arose and a massive fraud investigation stopped payments temporarily for as many as 400,000 people.
The agency increased its staffing, but in-person visits remained a goal for many in the system and in Lansing.
“We have to get those offices back open so we can have a little human interaction,” state Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, said during a June 18, 2020, joint house and senate session.
That it's happening a year later is frustrating to Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette.
"This should have happened months ago," she told Bridge Michigan.
Cambensy said frustrated jobless workers who were unable to reach the unemployment agency or get resolutions to their problems in turn contacted their legislators and the elected officials' staff members for help.
"There is a lot of anger from legislators who feel the administration did not value our legislative staff," she said. "... They took the brunt of angry constituents for over a year who couldn’t get through to the UIA office and governor’s office."
Legislative staff, she added, "were spending their entire work weeks doing nothing but unemployment claims that the UIA offices weren’t getting to because they shut their phone lines down, or refused to open their in-person offices earlier."
Legislators also had expressed concern about people without internet access. However, the UIA is only taking online appointments and walk-ins will not be allowed.
Rachael Kohl, director of the Workers’ Rights Center at nonprofit Michigan United, said the ability to ask questions in person will benefit some people, but she’s concerned that diverting staff to offices could slow progress on open cases. Over the past week, about 27,200 calls were made to the UIA about benefits.
“By being remote, the UIA has been able to process more calls and messages because so many people are assigned to answering them,” she said. “Now pulling people off and putting them in offices is going to cut down on that number that they are able to do.”
The locations of the offices may mean an hour’s drive or more for people, Kohl added, and the appointment-only system will further limit who has access to in-person sessions.
The agency said it hopes to serve about 900 customers per day in person through 15-minute appointments, the number that also is handled through phone appointments.
As of midday on the first day of appointments Thursday, none remained available in Detroit and Sterling Heights. Those two offices serve Metro Detroit, where just over half of the state’s unemployed workers live.
The 10 other opened offices had times available through July 3. They are located in Benton Harbor, Gaylord, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Marquette, Muskegon, Saginaw, Sault Ste. Marie, Sterling Heights, and Traverse City.
As of this week, 743,260 people were receiving some type of jobless benefit, according to the state. About 18,000 new claims have been filed weekly this month.
Among the other recent changes in the system is the restoration of job-search requirements on May 30 for people requesting assistance.
The average weekly benefit amount during the pandemic — not including the $300 federal supplement payment — was $312 for regular unemployment, according to UIA. For people receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, it was $216.
The state Senate on Thursday, meanwhile, gave final approval to legislation seeking to end the enhanced unemployment assistance for jobless residents three months early. Republicans contend the $300 weekly benefit boost has disincentivized work and fueled an employee shortage.
But Thursday's vote was largely symbolic: Senate Republicans did not have enough votes to give their bills "immediate effect," meaning the benefits would continue into early September even if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the legislation into law, which she is not expected to do.
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