Michigan adding servers, call centers to handle record unemployment claims

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

State officials on Tuesday said they've added more computer servers and are adding hundreds more staffers to answer phones to handle record-setting numbers of unemployment claims. 

On Monday, the state's online unemployment system and several other state websites were down for about six hours, officials said. 

"We have greatly expanded our web servers," said Jeff Donofrio, Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Director in a press conference Tuesday morning. "We are adding hundreds of staff. But our state system and state systems across the country for unemployment insurance have struggled to cope with these historic numbers."

A graphic from Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency explains a new process through which the state is asking people to file claims on different days of the week based on their last names. The process is meant to help deal with the high demand for unemployment benefits.

The online unemployment system crashed Monday, the same day self-employed workers and independent contractors in Michigan affected by the COVID-19 pandemic could start applying Monday for unemployment assistance.

The state has paid out so far $350 million in benefits to 600,000 people, Donofrio said. 

"That number is only going to grow as we move forward," he said. 

During a pandemic that's closed businesses and spurred Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to issue a stay-at-home order, record numbers of Michigan residents are filing for unemployment. One million have applied for aid, he said, nearly a quarter of the state's workforce. 

Robert Riddell, 67, of Beulah near Traverse City, estimates he's made hundreds of phone calls over the last three weeks trying unsuccessfully to resolve technical issues to apply for benefits. He had to shut down his store Crystal Moon, a home decor and design business. 

He said he's created three logins on the state's unemployment system in the process.

"I can't reach anyone to help me wipe all those out to start on a clean slate so I can literally get on," Riddell said. "Being quarantined and locked at home is tough enough, but I think the anxiety gets worse when you can't reach out to anyone to resolve your issue."

Late Tuesday, Riddell said he got a call back from the Unemployment Insurance Agency. They fixed his account, and he expects to be able to apply in 24 hours. 

Theresa Stewart, a Grosse Pointe dental hygienist, said she successfully applied about a month ago but was locked out of her account before receiving any payments. She waited seven hours on hold Monday only to get kicked off the call at 5:01 p.m., she said.

“At this point, they should have had this in place weeks ago,” said Stewart, who is relying on her savings while she waits on her benefits. “I am beyond frustrated. I have nothing else to do but continue to call.”

Donofrio said the state is contracting with third-party call centers to help and pulling employees from other state departments to help with calls, as well as implementing mandatory overtime for staff. 

They are asking people to apply online based on their last names. Those with last names beginning with A-L can file Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Those with last names beginning with M-Z can file Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

The state also is dedicating Saturday hours from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. to take calls from those unable to file online, said Steve Gray, director of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency.

Those with questions can email LEO-CORONAVIRUS@MICHIGAN.GOV

Gray said they will also be granting extensions of the requirement that employees file for unemployment within 28 days of when they stopped work if people had trouble applying. 

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.

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, officials have said. Workers who have had hours reduced can apply as well. 

Eligible workers will need to provide proof of income to receive the maximum amount they are entitled to. This could include W-2s, 1099 tax forms and pay stubs. These workers will begin receiving federal benefits as early as April 20 after their bi-weekly certification.

Donofrio said officials anticipate that the $4.6 billion state trust fund, which pays unemployment benefits, could spend through about half the fund by the end of July based on estimates of how many people will apply.  

Employees who are still working but believe they shouldn't be because they are non-essential can file a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Donofrio said businesses can face $7,000 fines if they don't comply with state shutdown orders.