Michigan lawmakers demand ouster at unemployment agency

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A group of 20 state House members is formally calling for a leadership overhaul within the state's Unemployment Insurance Agency as tens of thousands of Michigan residents have faced lengthy waits for assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay-at-home restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of the virus in Michigan have spurred record unemployment filings here. Those claims have overwhelmed the online and phone system set up to handle them.

Michigan's unemployment website has seen unprecedented filings in recent weeks as the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered the state's economy.

With problems persisting, 20 lawmakers — 19 Republicans and one Democrat — sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday requesting the "removal and replacement of the UIA leadership team."

"Our state has been shut down for two months and we are still receiving calls from people pleading to get their assistance from the state," the letter said. "It is clear to us, the leadership in the Unemployment Insurance Agency is not doing the job they were put there for and it is time for us to move in another direction."

The director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency in Whitmer's administration is Steve Gray, who was previously the director of Michigan Law's Unemployment Insurance Clinic and has spent much of his legal career helping get people financial assistance.

Whitmer selected Gray for the job in May 2019. Her office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawmakers' letter Thursday night.

In April, Gray publicly apologized for areas of the state's unemployment website that "aren’t as user friendly as they could be." At that time, he said there were tens of thousands of people still waiting in a proverbial line to get assistance from the state.

Members of Whitmer's administration have previously acknowledged problems with the state's unemployment system. More than 1.7 million residents have filed for unemployment as COVID-19 and restrictions aimed at combating it shuttered the state's economy.

Whitmer, a Democrat, issued her first stay-at-home order on March 23, 73 days ago. New weekly unemployment claims peaked in early April. On May 6, the governor issued an order that attempted to expedite filings. She lifted her stay-at-home requirement on Monday.

UIA leadership has been under tremendous pressure during an unprecedented increase in unemployment, said Jason Moon, spokesman for the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, which houses the agency.

"They are continuing to do everything they can to process claims and provide unemployment benefits to Michigan’s working families," Moon added.

But some state lawmakers say the efforts haven't been enough as they've heard from constituents who've waited weeks for their benefits. Some of them have had their phones disconnected, and others have struggled to buy groceries, the lawmakers said.

"We told them they couldn't work," said Rep. Luke Meerman, R-Coopersville. "The governor told them they couldn't work and told the businesses they had to close, and now we're not making a system that works for them to go get their unemployment benefits."

"We've got cases from March 26 that don't have unemployment yet. I don't know how you live like that," added Meerman, who organized the new letter to Whitmer.

According to the letter, 124,000 people in the state still are waiting for their benefits.

In many state lawmakers' legislative offices, staff has been forced to focus since the beginning of April on helping constituents try to get answers about their unemployment claims. One of Meerman's constituents, Nicholas Hembroff, 38, of Hudsonville filed for benefits seven weeks ago and still hasn't received his financial support from the state.

Rep. Luke Meerman

Hembroff, who has since returned to his job in excavation, said at one point, he spent six to eight hours a day just trying to get a hold of someone in the unemployment agency.

"It needs immediate revamping," Hembroff said.

The lawmakers now seeking a leadership change within the agency say stories like Hembroff's are widespread among their constituents. Rep. Andrea Schroeder, R-Clarkston, said her office hears from 100 to 150 people a week who have had problems filing for unemployment. Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, said her legislative director is working full time on unemployment matters.

"They'll call, having waited a month," Calley said of constituents. "Then, they'll call back maybe a month later and say, 'I'm still waiting and now, I need information on food assistance because I'm on my last box of macaroni.'"

In April, Gray said the agency was focused on helping those who hadn't gotten their claims paid.

"We haven’t forgotten about you," he said at the time. "We’re going to get it. I think it’s going to happen pretty quickly."

But Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond, said hundreds of his constituents are still waiting for answers about their claims. If larger numbers of customers were calling Amazon, the online retailer, and saying they couldn't get their order, someone would lose their job, Yaroch said.

"They're not going to have their customers sit for four weeks waiting for what they ordered," Yaroch said. "Only government seems to think that failing a little bit less is succeeding."

According to the new letter asking for a leadership change within the agency, 19 House Republicans — a third of the caucus that controls the chamber — and Democrat Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, who has clashed with other Democrats in recent weeks, signed on.