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Michigan unemployment director apologizes for state's website flaws

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The director of Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency apologized Wednesday for areas of the state's unemployment website that "aren’t as user friendly as they could be."

​Steve Gray, director of the State of Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency

"That’s probably putting it mildly," said Steve Gray, who participated in a Facebook Live Q&A with The Detroit News.

Asked if he had conversations with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office about not having enough staff to handle a surge in unemployment claims before a March 23 stay-at-home order was issued, Gray said he didn't know. 

Amid those stay-at-home restrictions and others, Michigan has seen record unemployment filings that have overwhelmed the agency set up to handle them.

To stem the spread of COVID-19, the stay-at-home directive generally barred people from leaving their homes and required many businesses to stop operating.

He declined to detail conversations he may have had with Whitmer's office before she issued the order.

"I don't know whether or not they happened before March 23," he said of the conversations. "I probably shouldn't comment on any specific conversations that we've had with the governor's office."

As of April 18, more than 1.1 million people in Michigan, nearly a quarter of the state's workforce, had filed for unemployment since the onset of coronavirus pandemic.

Gray said his agency has already provided financial assistance to more than 1 million people. But he acknowledged that there are tens of thousands of people who are still waiting in a proverbial line to get assistance from the state.

"We’re focused on you guys," Gray said to those individuals Wednesday. "We haven’t forgotten about you. We’re going to get it. I think it’s going to happen pretty quickly."

Michigan's online unemployment system is drawing criticism for not being able to handle the volume of claims being filed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The way the state site communicates with people causes confusion, Gray said. If more attention had been paid over the last eight years to helping people understand what's happening with their claims without calling the agency, things would be better, he said.

“We’re basically fixing the airplane as we go to make it more user friendly and we’re adding hundreds of thousands of new passengers as we go," Gray said.

Many people have reported calling Gray's agency repeatedly in the last weeks to try to get help with obstacles they've faced in filing their claims.

Gray said his agency is getting about 150,000 calls a day. Usually, it gets between 5,000 and 7,000 calls a day, he said.

“There wasn’t enough staff ever that we could get to be able to handle all of the call volume,” Gray said.

He added that calling the agency about problems isn't the right move.

"We're trying to reserve the phones just for people who need to file a new claim," he said. "95% of our claims are filed online. But there's a small group of people for whatever reason that can't file their claim online so we're trying to reserve the phones for them."

People who encounter problems filing unemployment claims should send the agency a  message through their Michigan Web Account Manager (MIWAM) account, Gray said.

"But we have a backlog there as well," he cautioned. "So it’s going to take days for us to get to those.”

Rajeev Sethi of Rochester Hills has experienced problems with the system as he's tried to help his wife file for unemployment. After working for a business for 20 years, she was recently laid off, he said. The agency denied her unemployment claims for two weeks and then approved the third week.

"There's no feedback," Sethi said of trying to contact the agency about the problem. "They never pick up."

Gray became the director of the agency in June. Previously, he was director of Michigan Law's Unemployment Insurance Clinic. He's been a longtime lawyer and advocate for unemployment claimants, he said.

The Michigan Republican Party blasted the Unemployment Insurance Agency in a  press release Wednesday.

“The issues at Michigan’s unemployment agency have been an ongoing story, and instead of parading around on national television and competing for another job,  Whitmer should be making this a top priority,” said Laura Cox, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party.

cmauger@detroitnews.com