Coronavirus complaints overwhelm Michigan unemployment, law enforcement
LANSING — Michigan residents frustrated by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order crashed a state hotline with complaints, and laid-off workers continue to stress the state’s unemployment system with a flood of claims.
The global pandemic that has upended daily life is also taxing government systems in an unprecedented manner as residents — and state officials — scramble to make sense of Whitmer’s Monday emergency order, which includes numerous exceptions for “critical” businesses.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office sent out an “urgent media alert” late Tuesday urging residents to file complaints to their local police officers — not a consumer protection hotline “literally” brought to a standstill due to an overwhelming volume of calls. And the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency is recommending users file jobless claims online during off-peak hours, between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., to avoid slow website service.
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The attorney general’s consumer protection hotline is intended “to take complaints of price gouging and scams,” Nessel said Wednesday morning on Twitter.
“Please don’t call us to report violations of the ‘stay at home’ order, as our system is overwhelmed and crashing. Call your local police dept at their non-emergency number.”
Nessel also said residents with questions about how to interpret Whitmer’s order can email the attorney general’s office at MIAG@Michigan.gov and noted the Whitmer administration is providing some answers on a frequently asked questions website.
“I understand there is a lot of anger and confusion regarding the governor’s emergency orders, but we would rather have you mad at your state government and alive than sick or dead and unable to post mean things on our social media,” Nessel wrote on Twitter. “This virus is no joke.”
Police seek guidance
As Bridge Magazine previously reported, police organizations were caught off guard by the local enforcement recommendation and were not immediately prepared to interpret the governor’s lengthy stay-at-home order when it took effect Tuesday.
Violation of the order is a misdemeanor punishable by $500 fines and 90 days in jail.
“It’s ambiguous,” said Bob Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.
As of Wednesday morning, Nessel’s office was working with local agencies to provide requested enforcement guidance, according to Stevenson.
Police chiefs around the state are fielding calls from residents reporting people or businesses they thought were not complying, he said.
In some cases, employees complained their employer wrongly deemed them essential, requiring them to come into work despite the global pandemic.
“They were asking for local police to clarify and step in and resolve those complaints,” Stevenson said. “Most chiefs and departments don’t feel at this point in time they have enough direction” to enforce it.
In Macomb County, Shelby Township police on Wednesday morning responded to a complaint alleging a Joann Fabrics store was open in violation of the governor’s order.
But it was a false alarm, according to Sgt. Jeff Walsh, the morning shift commander.
“Their doors were locked to the public,” he said. “They are not open.”
Walsh said the local police department is “getting a bunch” of calls about the governor’s stay-home order but has not issued any fines or made arrests.
Police groups are asking the Whitmer administration and attorney general’s office for the kind of enforcement guidance provided in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf has provided a six-page spreadsheet listing individual business types and whether they are allowed to continue physical operations.
Pennsylvania, whose closure order applies to seven counties, also provided local police with an extensive list of questions to ask when complaints are filed, Stevenson said.
“Most people are going to want to do the right thing,” he said of residents and business owners. “They just don’t know.”
Unemployment system ‘challenged’
Meanwhile, the director of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency is urging “patience” from out-of-work residents who have flooded the state’s website and phone system with new benefit claims.
Bridge first reported on those issues last week and has continued to field complaints and questions from residents struggling to apply for benefits.
“While an unprecedented number of calls and clicks has challenged the system, particularly during peak hours, we want to assure Michiganders that the system is providing emergency financial relief,” UIA director Steve Gray said Wednesday.
More than 108,000 Michigan residents filed for unemployment insurance between Monday and Friday of last week, the most since at least 1992 and more than any single week during the Great Recession, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Michigan claims were up more than 2,000 percent from the typical volume of about 5,000 new filings a week.
Michigan has closed local Unemployment Insurance Agency offices as part of the statewide effort to slow the novel coronavirus that as of Tuesday morning had spread to more than 1,790 state residents and killed at least 24.
Residents can file claims over the phone at 866-500-0017, but Gray warned that because of the huge volume of calls the state is receiving, callers may get a busy signal.
The unemployment agency is urging residents to first try and apply online at Michigan.gov/UIA. If possible, the state suggests using the website during off-peak hours, between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. because it operates better when there are fewer people online.
Additionally, the unemployment agency is warning applicants to expect longer load times and to avoid reloading pages that may take “several minutes” to load.
Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency has a troubled history, including call center problems and a computer system that made more than 40,000 false fraud determinations between October 2013 and August 2015, prompting an ongoing class-action lawsuit.
Michigan is not the only state facing system strains as unemployment insurance claims soar during the pandemic.
Washington state’s phone system reportedly cut off callers before they even connected, while Louisiana's website crashed and its phone system hung up on applicants.
“There’s just no planning for this,” H. Luke Shaefer, professor of social work and public policy at the University of Michigan, told Bridge last week. “The system was not set up to be ready for this kind of massive, huge shock at a moment in time.”
While acknowledging ongoing issues, Gray noted that residents now have more time to file claims under a Whitmer executive order, which extended the eligibility window from 14 to 28 days. The order also extended maximum benefits from 20 to 26 weeks and expanded access to sick workers and those caring for loved ones.
“The UIA is shifting as many resources as possible to handle the increase in applications and is exploring further solutions to help Michiganders get the assistance they need as soon as possible,” Gray said. “We appreciate your patience during this unprecedented time.”
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