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Michigan’s unemployment insurance claims have soared as the state agency stopped in-person transactions Wednesday and went to online filing to help stem the spread of coronavirus. 

"We can confirm that the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency is currently experiencing an average 550% increase in claims compared to normal anticipated activity this time of year," said Erica Quealy, a spokeswoman for state Unemployment Insurance Agency.

The decision to close the agency's lobbies comes as the agency experiences a large uptick in unemployment claims after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expanded eligibility for benefits in the wake of COVID-19 closures. Whitmer’s order also suspended rules requiring in-person registration and work search requirements. 

People seeking to apply for unemployment benefits can do so at www.michigan.gov/UIA or by calling (866) 500-0017. 

“Limiting public visits to our UIA lobbies and eliminating in-person registration and work search requirements are critical steps in this emergency,” said Steve Gray, director for the Unemployment Insurance Agency. 

The Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity on Wednesday asked companies to explore state work share programs allowing employers to cut hours instead of laying off workers. Or companies could opt for temporary leave instead of termination so employees can maintain access to unemployment or eventual federal aid in the form of paid sick, family or medical leave, the department said. 

Employers who place an employee on temporary leave should advise the employee that "they expect to have work available within 120 days."

More information on the options is available at www.michiganbusiness.org or by calling (888) 522-0103.

“Through Gov. Whitmer’s executive action and existing state programs, there are resources for employers affected by COVID-19," said Jeff Donofrio, director of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. "We are also strongly urging job providers facing work shortages to place their employees on temporary leave as opposed to termination, so that they may remain eligible for potential federal assistance.”

Whitmer also signed Wednesday an executive order that extends the deadline for Michigan residents to pay property back taxes and avoid foreclosure from March 31 to May 29 or 30 days after the governor’s state of emergency is ended. 

“The last thing families and seniors should have to worry about during this global health pandemic is losing their home, which is why this commonsense executive order will give homeowners some peace of mind,” Donofrio said in a statement. 

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Labor made $100 million available for Dislocated Worker Grants, available through states and Indian tribal governments for workers laid off because of the disaster or self-employed individuals unemployed because of the disaster. 

People seeking benefits can file a claim online, communicate with a customer service agent, and manage an account. 

On Tuesday, the Unemployment Insurance Agency posted a message to its website warning users that they may encounter slowness “due to the high volume of users at this time.” It is happening because of the overwhelming surge in claims, Quealy said.

"Our IT team is working diligently on a fix to ensure the system is performing as efficiently as possible," he said.

The influx in volume follows a Monday executive order from Whitmer expanding who can file for unemployment as well as benefits amid the shutdown of restaurants, bars and other businesses due to the coronavirus. 

Those out of work caring for family members, either because they are sick or because of school closures, can now apply for benefits, according to the governor's office. Also, workers who are "sick, quarantined or immunocompromised" and who don't have paid family and medical leave or are laid off are eligible.

Benefits will also be increased to 26 weeks from 20, and the application eligibility period will be increased from 14 to 28 days.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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