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Michigan strains unemployment system with most claims since Great Recession

unemployment line

March 25: Coronavirus complaints overwhelm Michigan unemployment, law enforcement

Like thousands of Michigan workers who lost their jobs Monday, Alicia Mason rushed online to apply for unemployment insurance benefits. 

And then she waited — and waited — for the website to work.

What should have taken an hour took three days for the 40-year-old waitress at Sleder’s Family Tavern in Traverse City, which shut down Monday under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s sweeping order that closed restaurants, bars, casinos and more in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that by Friday was linked to hundreds of illnesses and three deaths in the state.

More than 80,000 Michigan residents filed claims with the state’s unemployment insurance website and call center Monday through Thursday, an avalanche one expert called unprecedented, rivaling the worst days of the Great Recession. 

The onslaught prompted long waits and occasional freezes, according to Mason and other users who spoke to Bridge Magazine as the pandemic has slowed the state’s  economy to a crawl.

“I get it, since there's so many people that are out of a job right now because of this,” Mason said Friday by phone in northern Michigan, where she’s taking care of two children and is worried about how she’ll pay the rent on April 1. “It was definitely frustrating, but I was relieved when I was finally able to get it done last night.” 

The Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity had reported 55,000 unemployment claims through Wednesday, a figure director Jeff Donofrio compared to the apex of the Great Recession, when he said weekly claims peaked at 60,000 during the 2000s-era national economic downturn. 

Roughly 25,000 additional claims were filed Thursday, bringing this week’s running total to 80,000, Donofrio revealed Friday afternoon in a Facebook live chat hosted by the Small Business Association of Michigan.

The volume is “pretty much unprecedented,” said H. Luke Shaefer, professor of social work and public policy at the University of Michigan. “That is, I think, as much a shock to the system as we’ve ever had.”

Donofrio addressed website and call center concerns earlier Friday in a telephone town hall hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

“We are asking you to be patient,” Donofrio said. “We know that our website has been a little bit slower, our call time has been a little bit longer, but unlike other systems around the country, our website hasn’t crashed and our systems are still responding.”

But multiple users say the state system was essentially unusable at times this week, with slow load times on the website and long hold times at a call center, one that has been previously flagged by state auditors for problems.

“I would go through different screens, but at every single screen it would freeze up and I’d have to wait again,” said Mason. “I only got through like five questions that way, and then it just completely froze up and kicked me out of it.” 

Frustrated, Mason said she then tried to file by phone. After more than a half hour on hold, during which her estimated wait time kept increasing, she selected an option requesting the state call her back. That never happened.  She was finally able to submit online Thursday night. 

Another woman, a Metro Detroit resident who asked not to be identified while out of work, told Bridge in an email that she tried to use the state unemployment insurance website Monday evening and Tuesday morning but had no luck. She was able to get through later in the week. 

She sent a screenshot showing a “request error” message on an otherwise blank page. The woman said she called the hotline too but got a message saying that due to high volume, her call could not be answered at that time. 

“I am trying to certify for current benefits but so many more people need access to these benefits in light of the recent business shutdowns,” the woman said. “ UIA system failures add further insult to injury.”

Bridge Magazine forwarded her screenshot to a spokeswoman at the Michigan Department of Labor and Opportunity, who said the website had not gone down “to my knowledge” as of Tuesday.

“The call center and online system are still holding up,” spokeswoman Erica Quealy reiterated in a Friday email. 

Performance issues

Quealy has acknowledged performance issues, however, and the Unemployment Insurance Agency website was updated this week with an apologetic warning that “due to the high volume of users at this time, you may experience some slowness” with the system, known as MiWAM, the Michigan Web Account Manager. 

“We understand how this may impact your ability to effectively use the system. We’re working with our IT team to monitor the system and ensure the site remains available for employees facing unemployment.”

Michigan typically does a good job getting people benefits in a timely fashion once they’ve successfully applied, said Shaefer, the U-M professor who has studied unemployment insurance here and in other states. But website performance issues this week are no surprise. 

“There’s just no planning for this,” he said. “The system was not set up to be ready for this kind of massive, huge shock at a moment in time.”

The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday released national data showing an increase of 70,000 unemployment insurance claims for the week ending March 14, a significant spike at least partially related to COVID-19, the illness produced by the coronavirus. National data for this week, when states like Michigan took aggressive actions to close down many businesses, is not expected until next week. 

Goldman Sachs is predicting national unemployment insurance claims could reach a record 2.25 million in the week ending March 21. 

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the Trump administration is asking states to not release jobless numbers before they are published in a weekly federal report because they could cause panic among policy makers and on financial markets.

Citing a federal "embargo," the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity on Wednesday declined a Bridge Magazine request for updated unemployment insurance claim numbers. But the department reversed that stance Friday, releasing the additional numbers. 


A troubled history for call center 

Michigan has had problems with its unemployment call center in the past, but officials had hoped the kind of lengthy wait times described by Mason were a thing of the past. 

State Auditor General Doug Ringler’s office said in February that the Unemployment Insurance Agency had not yet complied with 2016 recommendations to improve call center operations and plan for increased claim volumes. 

Auditors reviewed more than 300,000 calls to the UIA between August 2018 and last June. 

Of the 66,461 calls that were put on hold, 18,381 callers hung up before speaking with a human, about 28 percent. For the other 244,725 calls, the audit found that the agency did not have data to determine whether the calls were successfully routed to a “self-service queue,” ended by the caller, or went unanswered. 

The state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity in February agreed with the audit findings but noted that the Unemployment Insurance Agency implemented a new phone system in September 2019 that is more functional and streamlined the process.  

“As a result, the customer wait-times and abandoned calls have dramatically improved,” the department said in an official audit response, months before business closures forced by the coronavirus crisis again strained the system. 

The audit did not indicate whether the agency provided numbers to support that claim. 

Donofrio, in a separate interview with NPR, said the state upgraded both its online and call system “just a few months ago” and has not yet had the kind of major website crashes reported in other states like Oregon and New York.

Expanded benefits

User delays come at a critical time for the growing number of out-of-work Michigan residents attempting to access benefits.

The state closed local Unemployment Insurance Agency offices on Wednesday as part of an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus by limiting public gatherings. Out-of-work residents can also file claims by calling 1-866-500-0017, but the state is warning that “increased call volumes” mean the website may be the fastest option.

As Bridge reported Monday, experts say Michigan workers at companies forced to close because of the coronavirus should qualify for unemployment benefits that provide at least a portion of their regular income — up to $362 a week. 

Research shows unemployment benefits can help jobless residents avoid home foreclosures, improve health outcomes and reduce substance abuse rates, according to Shaefer of U-M. 

“These are incredibly important benefits, and at the same time, if this is the only thing coming into somebody's house and they were making $50,000 a year, it’s going to be rough,” he said. “It’s going to be tough.”

Under a separate executive order Whitmer signed Monday, jobless Michigan residents can qualify for up to 26 weeks of unemployment insurance, up from 20 weeks under current state law.  

Whitmer’s order also suspended normal requirements for in-person registration, allowing residents to complete the application process entirely online. It also temporarily waived a provision requiring beneficiaries to prove they are looking for a new job. 

Those changes should make it easier for residents impacted by the coronavirus to access benefits, Shaefer said. But some people may still have difficulty accessing unemployment insurance, including people who had not been in the workforce long enough to meet earnings requirements, he added.

The state is urging employers who are contemplating layoffs to instead put employees on temporary leave without pay. That will allow out-of-work residents to remain eligible for federal assistance programs that Congress is contemplating, Donofrio said Friday.

Self-employed independent contractors do not currently qualify for unemployment benefits, according to Donofrio, but he said the state is asking the Trump administration to declare the outbreak a disaster, which would make contractors eligible under Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines.

In Traverse City, Mason said she is just relieved she finally completed her application, and she’s eager for any assistance the state can provide. 

Bridge Magazine first profiled Mason on Wednesday, when she was struggling to decide whether to pay her phone bill or buy groceries for her sons, ages 14 and 8, who are home because Whitmer closed state schools. 

Mason subsequently got a financial boost from a former employer and a onetime customer. Both had read about her plight and responded with gifts she said restored her “faith in humanity.”

“I still don’t have a lot of money but we’re getting by pretty good,” Mason said Friday. “My kids are eating and we’ve got a roof over our heads. I still don’t know how we’re going to pay rent, but I have faith that will work out too.”

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