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GOP House speaker calls for removal of state unemployment agency chief

Jason Wentworth
Michigan’s Republican House Speaker Jason Wentworth called for the acting chief of the state’s unemployment agency to step down Thursday, prompting a rebuke from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office. (Bridge file photo)

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LANSING—Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth on Thursday called for the removal of Liza Estlund Olson, the state’s acting director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency, citing the agency’s “mismanagements” involving jobless claims.

In a news release, Wentworth said he wants Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to appoint new leadership and for the agency to have a new direction.

“The simple truth is UIA isn’t getting the job done for Michigan families,” Wentworth, R-Clare, wrote. “The people of this state need UIA’s help more than ever right now, and instead of rising to the challenge, they are letting us down over and over again.”

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Olson’s office declined to respond Thursday to Wentworth’s statement. 

Whitmer’s spokesperson Bobby Leddy told Bridge Michigan in an email it was “unfortunate that the legislature is focused on lobbing partisan political attacks rather than partnering with the administration to pass legislation introduced by Democrats in the legislature, which would improve unemployment services for people who've lost a job through no fault of their own during a global pandemic.”

Leddy said that to date 99 percent of “eligible” residents who have applied for unemployment claims have been approved, and said “there is still more work to do to get the final 1% across the finish line.”

Over the last 16 months, the state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) has experienced widespread fraud, delayed payments, computer system crashes and problems resolving the issues, some self-inflicted. The agency’s troubled history is well documented, but in the fast-spreading pandemic UIA also has faced unprecedented challenges, with millions of state residents filing for aid following COVID-19 economic restrictions.  

Olson was named acting director in November, after the resignation of former UIA Director Steve Gray. This is Olson’s second stint in this role — she served for a year in the same capacity in 2007. According to her state biography, she most recently served as the director of the Office of the State Employer.

The latest controversy facing UIA involves the handling of nearly 700,000 jobless claims this summer.

In June, the UIA sent notices to about 692,000 people asking them to recertify their eligibility for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, including benefits many had already received. The agency said it had learned that four of the criteria established for the federal pandemic aid, designed to help part-time, self-employed and “gig” workers, no longer qualified as legitimate reasons for payments.

The notice created confusion — it indicated that people receiving the letter might have to pay back the benefits. About 350,000 people ended up not answering the request. So last month the state announced it was granting overpayment waivers to those unemployment claimants.

Earlier this month, the House Oversight Committee heard testimony on the state’s handling of the claims. But Wentworth said UIA refused to provide the Oversight Committee with requested information regarding the back payment letters.

He added the agency has a backlog of about 20,000 claims 10 months after Olson took over as acting director. 

“Our families, friends and neighbors were put in a terrible position in this lockdown, and many of them are still desperate for help, but the UIA simply cannot or will not help them,” Wentworth said. “The governor has to make a change and give Michigan families the lifeline they deserve.”

On Thursday, Committee Chair Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, said in a statement that Olson has agreed to testify in committee in two weeks.

“The list of problems at the agency continues to get longer,” Johnson said. “As the committee continues to fulfill its duty to investigate and hold government agencies accountable, it is important that committee members hear from the director.”

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