In the coming days a bipartisan group of state lawmakers will introduce new legislation to reform and improve Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency. These important bills would give a helping hand to working people who have lost a job through no fault of their own, so they can continue to support their families while they search for work and get back on their feet.
The new bills are the product of nearly 900 hours of collaboration among a workgroup led by State Rep. Joe Graves, R-Argentine Township, and Rep. Kevin Hertel, D-St. Clair Shores. This workgroup included active and meaningful participation from organized labor, legal advocacy groups, business organizations, and state unemployment officials.
These bills are by no means comprehensive, nor are they perfect. Indeed, there is still more work that must be done to make people whole who were falsely accused of unemployment fraud by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, and maliciously challenged in court by Attorney General Bill Schuette.
However, this bipartisan legislation would go a long way toward preventing another disaster like this from happening again. Specifically, these bills would:
■ Require the UIA to make better and more frequent attempts to notify people who have been accused of fraud.
■ Increase the period of time fraud cases may be reopened from one year to three years.
■ Make it easier to reopen a case when fraud determinations are sent to the wrong address.
■ Provide broader access to the UIA’s Advocacy Program, allowing those who have been accused of fraud to get the help and answers they need.
■ Reduce fraud penalties by 75 percent. Michigan currently has the highest unemployment fraud penalties in the nation at 400 percent.
■ Ensure no interest be applied if an overpayment was made due to an agency error for one year.
■ Clarify eligibility for hardship waivers when people do not have the ability to pay, and improve the agency’s process for handling these applications.
■ Create new systems to protect all Michigan residents from identity theft.
■ Establish an Inspector General to review administrative policies, practices, and procedures. This position will also make recommendations to improve accountability and integrity within the UIA.
Graves, who serves as chair of the House Oversight Committee, deserves credit for his diligent leadership in workgroup meetings. This hasn’t always been an easy process. But Graves and Hertel have done an admirable job of bringing people and organizations that don’t often agree on policy together to build consensus and solve these tough problems.
While it’s a shame that this workgroup was even necessary due to the horrible mistreatment of Michigan’s jobless workers, these bills are a good example of what can happen when Republicans and Democrats start working together to get things done for Michigan’s working families.
Now it’s time to finish the job.
Once these bills are introduced, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle must work quickly to approve this legislation, because our jobless workers can’t afford to keep waiting for solutions.
Let’s pass these bills, let’s fix the unemployment system, and let’s start working together to build a better Michigan for all of us.
Ron Bieber is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.