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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan unemployment system surprised by so many COVID claims. Again.

Tell us if you’ve heard this one before. 

The reason Michigan’s website for unemployment payments crashed Monday: too many users. 

That conclusion was announced after analysis of the computer glitch by the Department of Management and Budget. This marks at least the second time since the COVID pandemic struck that state computers were overwhelmed by workers seeking benefits.

 

Trish Pellerito of Westland said the frustration she felt Monday was familiar among unemployed workers. 

“Back in March and April when everything shut down and a bunch of us lost jobs, the UIA was understaffed and overwhelmed,” she said, referring to the Unemployment Insurance Agency.  

“Fast forward,” Pellerito said, “and the system is once more overwhelmed.”

An initial slowdown early Monday morning turned into a full halt to the website. Login screens froze and frustration mounted among the estimated tens of thousands of unemployed workers who visited the site after being told a day earlier they could reopen their claims Monday and receive up to 24 more weeks of benefits or launch new claims.

The situation is “a wake-up call” that Michigan unemployment systems still need scrutiny, said Rep. Matt Hall, a Republican from Marshall.

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“Everyone knew there was going to be a huge surge because people couldn’t get benefits for weeks,” Hall told Bridge Michigan Wednesday.

The login logjam represented a new state record for the number of people trying to access Michigan’s unemployment system, said Caleb Buhs, director of communications for DTMB.

“There were hours with 340,000 user attempts to log in, more than doubling the previous unprecedented high,” Buhs said.

The previous record of 150,000 attempts per hour was set in spring 2020, as pandemic unemployment peaked at 22.7 percent in April.The volume during more normal stable periods of the pandemic was 50,000 to 70,000 attempts per hour, he said, compared to about 5,000 before March 2020.

The spike in attempts to access the system last spring was accompanied by anger among unemployed workers who struggled to get benefits and increased pressure in state offices as critics urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Unemployment Insurance Agency to better meet the needs of the jobless. 

Complaints continued to mount about the UIA as it increased its capacity, resulting in Legislative hearings about delays in getting benefits to people, some of whom reported spending hours over days trying to reach someone who could answer their questions.

Then, by summer, after the UIA said it had hired additional staff to handle increased demand, payments for hundreds of thousands of people were again held up as the state investigated waves of fraudulent claims

Over the course of the pandemic, 3.12 million Michigan residents have filed claims, with $28.1 billion paid out. 

Pellerito, the unemployed worker from Westland, said she eventually was able to reach her account Monday, but in stages. To access benefits, unemployed workers start on the UIA page in the agency’s system, called MIWAM, then get redirected into the MILogin system run by DTMB for tasks like certifying for benefits or checking that their payments are in progress. The MILogin system is the one that crashed.

“The system kept kicking me off, “ Pellerito said, echoing the experiences of jobless workers across the state that day.

Whitmer’s office declined to comment on the slowdown. The UIA has been under Acting Director Liza Estlund Olson after former director Steven Gray resigned on November 6. No update on Whitmer’s plans to hire a permanent replacement was available from her office, said Tiffany Brown, the governor’s communications director, told Bridge Michigan on Wednesday.

Hall said the Legislature needs to continue to scrutinize problems with unemployment benefits reaching jobless workers. 

“We’ve been so focused on getting the benefits to the people that need them,” Hall said. “I definitely believe that we have to start looking for a better system.”

Still unclear is how many individuals were making the login attempts. About 365,000 Michigan residents expected to see their benefits end in late 2020 and learned those payments were restored or extended by the federal Continued Assistance Act on December 27. According to UIA, as of Tuesday there were 58,161 PUA claims that had not been reopened, and 7,136 from the PEUC program. 

More people in Michigan are receiving the federal assistance or extended benefits than “regular” unemployment, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The UIA normally administers unemployment that is paid to full-time workers who lose their jobs. Benefits come from the employer-funded Michigan Unemployment Trust Fund and people receiving benefits follow guidelines seeking new employment.

Then the federal government created new programs early in the pandemic through the CARES ACT. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program pays part-time workers, the self-employed, and people who couldn’t work while caring for children or family members ill from COVID-19. The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program extends benefits for the long-term unemployed.

But all federal payments and eligibility were paused on December 26 as the original legislation expired. After it was reactivated as part of the Continued Assistance Act signed by then-President Donald Trump, the state spent early January reconfiguring its systems to address additional $300 payments that were approved through March 14 and extensions to existing programs to help the long-term unemployed. 

While the state waited for guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor before it could process the federally paid claims under the new legislation, it promised laid-off workers would get paid for the weeks between December 26 and whenever they could reactivate their accounts. 

The volume of activity seen this week suggests urgency among many of those workers. High login traffic continued on Tuesday, as the system was restored, said Buhs.

After DTMB made adjustments to increase capacity, MILogin processed more than 1.6 million logins. That volume “was in the top five of logins processed during a single day in MILogin history,” Buhs said. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 700,000 Michigan workers could receive some form of unemployment during January, representing about 14 percent of the 4.8 million people in the state’s labor market.

“I appreciate how big a job serving us is right now,” Pellerito said, “but it just appears like no lessons were learned the first time around.”

However, Buhs said, the high volume of login attempts on Monday was unusual. Buhs said DTMB and UIA had planned for the wave of logins after making adjustments to their respective systems.

“It would not have been prudent to build a system intended to handle a volume more than double what had ever been seen,” Buhs said.

In addition to the shutdown of unemployment accounts, the crush of activity also slowed other systems that connect state residents to online food assistance, auto registration and other services. 

There’s a chance that some of the log-in logjam involved fraudulent claims, said Jason Moon, communications director for UIA.

“Throughout the pandemic, Michigan along with states across the country has seen attempts by criminals to obtain benefits through filing imposter claims. PUA has been the most heavily targeted,” he said, “so it is likely there were attempts by criminals to file these types of claims.”

Buhs said DTMB will look for ways to increase the system’s elasticity for future events, so that “capacity can be ramped up when needed and run at a lower cost when not.”

For information about Michigan unemployment, visit the state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency webpage.

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