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State jobless site crashes as record-setting Michiganians file claims

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Michigan's online unemployment system crashed Monday after the site began processing claims for low-wage and self-employed workers amid record-setting filings due to hardships spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. It remained down for most of the day.

The online filing system glitches for the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity come as self-employed workers, gig workers, 1099-independent contractors and low-wage workers were able to apply for federal benefits as of 8 a.m. The state jobless system has crashed in prior weeks under the weight of the filings.

The Monday outage stretched beyond the unemployment system, affecting functions on other Michigan websites including the Secretary of State's Office as well as the Department of Licensing and Regulatory affairs for a portion of the day, said Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the state's Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

By 4:30 p.m. Monday, the state said in a Facebook post that service to the unemployment benefit portal, Michigan Web Account Manager, or MiWAM, had been restored. 

The issue that caused the outage was resolved, it reads, "and the application is performing at normal capacity."

"The Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) assures every eligible worker in Michigan who applies for unemployment benefits that they will receive them," the post says. 

The state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency said Friday it has validated 140,000 of the 340,000 active unemployment accounts, about 41%, that had been frozen due to concerns they may be fraudulent.

On its Twitter page, the labor office wrote Monday it was "experiencing very heavy volumes."

"We know newly eligible workers are eager to get benefits," it reads. "To help everyone get through, please only file today if your last name begins with A-L and consider waiting until off peak hours 8PM-8AM to file."

The overwhelmed site was offline for close to two hours in late March and state officials urged patience as staff works to process more claims than the state saw during the Great Depression. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she would participate occasionally in handling benefit calls. 

Under a $2.2 trillion federal relief package, workers on state unemployment have already begun receiving a $600 federal weekly payment that's in addition to their normal state benefit amount, according to Whitmer's office.

Newly eligible self-employed workers, gig workers, independent contractors and low-wage workers can begin receiving their state benefit amount — paid with federal funds — and the $600 federal payment as early as April 20. 

Self-employed workers, gig workers, independent contractors and low-wage workers who have previously applied for unemployment benefits and have been denied should log in to their accounts to complete the next steps for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the state has said. 

On Thursday, the state reported its third straight week of Great Recession-level unemployment numbers, noting the week prior, more than 384,000 people had filed for expanded benefits prompted by the pandemic.

A record 384,844 people filed for unemployment benefits between March 29 and April 4 in Michigan, according to the Associated Press. The figure eclipses the 128,006 who filed for unemployment between March 15 and March 21 and the 304,335 who filed for unemployment between March 22 and March 28.

The virus-prompted filings bring the three-week total to 817,185 jobless claims in Michigan. The state of Michigan on average has roughly 5,000 claims filed a week. During the Great Recession, an average of 31,500 initial claims were filed on a weekly basis in Michigan between October 2008 and July 2009 with a peak week of 77,000, according to data from the state's labor office. 

People who have submitted claims should expect to begin collecting unemployment within about two weeks of approval, according to the state agency.

The state unemployment system has been plagued by delays under the load of new applications that are being submitted almost exclusively online because of the closure of many unemployment offices. 

On March 16, six days after the state confirmed its first cases of COVID-19, Whitmer expanded the state unemployment benefits to include those out of work caring for family members, either because they are sick or because of school closures.

Benefits also increased from 20 to 26 weeks, and the application eligibility period was raised from 14 to 28 days. The state suspended in-person registration and work search requirements.

cferretti@detroitnews.com

Detroit News Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed