LANSING — More than 300,000 Michigan residents filed unemployment insurance claims last week, an unprecedented surge amid the coronavirus pandemic that has forced business closures, prompted mass layoffs and overwhelmed the state filing system.
Both Michigan and the United States posted record jobless claims for the week ended Saturday, March 28, surpassing what had been all-time highs set the prior week, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Michigan reported 311,086 initial claims for the week of March 22-28, the first full period since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order prohibited non-essential travel by residents and closed additional businesses not deemed “critical.”
State claims were up more than 6,000 percent compared to the final week of March last year, when the state processed 4,737 applications.
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Roughly 1 in 10 Michigan workers — a total of 439,092 — have filed for jobless benefits over the past two weeks.
Nationally, seasonally adjusted claims totaled 6,648,000, according to the federal data. That was up from 3,283,000 the prior week, which had shattered the previously recorded high of 695,000 set in October 1982.
Nearly 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15.
And like the coronavirus pandemic, which had spread to 9,334 Michigan residents by Wednesday and killed 337, experts say the economy may still get worse before it begins to improve.
“We know we're not to the end of the job losses,” said Charles Ballard, an economics professor at Michigan State University. “It looks like the month of April is going to be pretty ugly, and maybe May, and maybe longer.”
The new claims data come just days after analysts at the Goldman Sachs financial firm released grim projections of continued job losses. The firm is predicting the national unemployment rate could jump to 15 percent by midyear, up from 3.5 percent in February.
Michigan’s unemployment rate never got that high during the Great Recession, which hit the state earlier, longer and harder than most. The jobless rate here topped out at 14.6 percent in June 2009, which was the highest rate since a national recession in 1982.
The Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing has projected that as many as 1.4 million Michigan workers could lose at least two days’ wages over the next month-and-a-half.
Researchers at the University of Michigan have predicted 155,000 to 400,000 job losses in the state as a result of the pandemic. The state is already approaching the high end of those projections, according to the benefit claims data released Thursday.
While business restrictions may be eased if the public health crisis subsides, there is long-term danger that “ripple effects” will continue to rock what had already been a slowing economy, Ballard said.
“It’s not just that the restaurant closes,” he said. “ It’s that there’s reduced demand for all the things that restaurant would have bought, and then that ripples through the entire system.”
Website crashes under weight
The crush of unemployment claims has at times overwhelmed Michigan’s online filing system and call center, prompting the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to recommend residents apply during off-peak hours and only on certain days.
The state is also in the process of hiring 100 additional staffers for the unemployment claim call center, where as many as 250 employees now work at a time, according to department spokesman Jason Moon.
“Nearly all UIA staff is focused right on processing claims,” he said.
Despite efforts to add server capacity, the Michigan Unemployment Insurance website crashed Tuesday and was offline for roughly 1 hour and 40 minutes.
An “unprecedented volume of transactions” processed on Monday had caused an internal error on some servers that made the system unstable and subsequently unavailable for a limited time Tuesday, Moon said. The technical team resolved the error and continues to monitor the site.
System delays come at a difficult time for Michigan residents who lost their jobs but should have access to expanded benefits under a state order and federal rescue package, which will provide an extra $600 per week in compensation and extend payments from 26 to 39 weeks.
It took Bob Kustasz of Clinton Township four days to successfully apply after he was temporarily laid off from his job as an internet manager at a Ford dealership that closed last week.
He and his wife battled busy signals and dropped calls as they took turns redialing the state hotline by cellphone and landline an estimated 400 times, and he was discouraged by slow load times and missing functionality.
“I don’t know what they system was designed to handle, but I don’t know if anybody would ever plan for that kind of crunch,” Kustasz said.
While he understands the delays, Kustasz said the process left him anxious, frustrated and antsy. His concern was compounded by an official notice, prepared by the state and filled out by his employer, directing him to file his claim “during the first week of unemployment.”
Michigan law typically gives applicants 14 days to file, and an executive order signed by Whitmer extended that window to 28 days for workers who lose jobs due to the pandemic. Claims will be backdated to reflect the date they were laid off.
That information should be “front and center” on the state website, said Kustasz, who didn’t know that when he was trying to apply and feared he was “gonna lose a week of unemployment — because that’s what it says on the form” his employer filled out.
Michigan is not the only state whose online system has strained under the weight of new claims.
In New York, home to the most coronavirus cases in the nation, the state’s unemployment website sputtered to a halt after a rush of claims that a spokeswoman compared to “post 9/11” volumes.
Despite frustrations by users last week, the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency still managed to process an average of 44,440 claims per day. That’s nearly nine times the volume as a typical week.
“We appreciate the patience that Michigan workers have shown the unemployment system in the last few weeks,” Moon said, “but we can assure everyone who is eligible for benefits and applies will receive them.”
When and how to file unemployment claims
Additional data provided Thursday shows the volume of initial and continued claims processed by the state has at least doubled in 70 of 83 counties over the past two weeks compared to the first two weeks of March.
Processed claims jumped more than 400 percent in Ottawa and Washtenaw counties over that span; and more than 300 percent in Macomb, Oakland, Kent, Ingham, Livingston, Muskegon, Monroe, Eaton, Lenawee, Shiawasee, Ionia, Clinton. St. Joseph, Hillsdale and Branch counties.
In Wayne, the state’s most populous county, 71,057 residents successfully filed new or continued unemployment insurance claims last week, up from 15,474 the first week of March.
“The unprecedented increase in unemployment claims demonstrate the economic hardship that COVID-19 has caused for so many across our country and here in Michigan,” Jeff Donofrio, director of the state labor department, said in a statement.
“The Unemployment Insurance Agency continues to work around the clock to provide emergency financial assistance to working families.”
To mitigate user issues, the state is now suggesting unemployed workers file for benefits online between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. to avoid heavy traffic, and it’s implementing an alternating schedule for all applicants.
Residents with last names that start with letters A-L are asked to file online claims anytime Monday, Wednesday or Friday and call center claims between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Applicants with last names that start with M-Z are asked to file online Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday or by phone between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday.
If those times don’t work for you, the state says anyone can try to file online Saturday, and the call center will be open to all on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The federal rescue package signed last week by Republican President Donald Trump will soon expand unemployment benefits to self-employed workers, gig workers, 1099-independent contractors and low-wage workers who had not previously qualified.
But those workers should “NOT APPLY AT THIS TIME,” according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, which is working to finalize rules with the federal government and says applications should open in “the next few days.”
“Hang tight,” Donofrio said Tuesday on Twitter, telling users the state needs the U.S. Department of Labor to “give us the rules.” If you apply now and are denied, the state will contact you with next steps once the rules are in place, he said.
The “key here is to give the system time to work for those who are eligible now” so that when the federal government “gives us the go ahead, we’ll have more resources free to quickly process your claim.”
Likewise, the state says that residents who already applied do not need to do any additional work to qualify for additional benefits under the federal rescue package.
“If you’re already in the system, you’re going to get an extra $600 a week,” Moon said.
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