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Lawmakers ask Whitmer to open unemployment offices, relieve claims backlog

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Democratic lawmaker has asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to reopen regional unemployment offices to help process some of the chronically delayed claims submitted to the agency. 

The bipartisan letter of 12 Michigan House members seeks, at the least, a limited reopening of the offices similar to what was done with Secretary of State branches, which opened for limited appointments starting June 1. Unemployment offices across the state have been closed for in-person transactions since March 18. 

Constituents around the state are frustrated by the inability to speak with someone in person, especially in areas like the Upper Peninsula where some people don't have access to the internet, said Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, who wrote the June 12 letter. It was signed by 11 other representatives, the majority of whom are Democrats.

Five of the Democrats who signed the letter were from Metro Detroit, including one who flipped an Oakland County Republican seat in 2018. They are Reps. Padma Kuppa of Troy, Tenisha Yancey of Harper Woods, Sherry Gay-Dagnogo of Detroit, Jewell Jones of Inkster and Leslie Love of Detroit.

Cambensy testified Thursday on her letter during a legislative hearing, noting she has yet to hear back from the governor or the Unemployment Insurance Agency representatives copied on the letter. 

"At this point, Mr. Chair, it's come to a head, and I really would appreciate a meeting, an explanation from the department about why this reopening of local offices is not happening," Cambensy told the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

Committee Chairman Rep. Matt Hall supported Cambensy's request and argued that the offices could be reopened safely. 

“Legislators are hearing from (waiting claimants) constantly and our offices are doing our best to help them, but Gov. Whitmer’s office and the agency responsible for overseeing the timely fulfillment of claims are also responsible," said Hall, a Marshall Republican. "They need to do more to get people the payments they need and deserve.”

A group of 20 state House members — 19 Republicans and Democratic Rep. Karen Whitsett of Detroit — two weeks ago called for a leadership overhaul at the state's Unemployment Insurance Agency, including the ouster of Director Steve Gray, as tens of thousands of Michigan residents have faced lengthy waits for assistance.

The agency is working with the Office of State Employer to find a way to reopen field offices, UIA spokesman Jason Moon said. 

"We will ensure that we use staff resources efficiently and effectively to continue to best serve UIA customers," Moon said. 

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, on Wednesday offered an amendment to the Legislature's $880 million supplemental bill that would have added $50 million more for the reopening of existing unemployment offices and the addition of other offices. The amendment was rejected along party lines.

"The main issue we have is people need to identify who they are; there are easier ways to do that besides a computer system,” Hertel said, referring to obstacles many have encountered in verifying their identity amidg widespread cases of unemployment fraud. 

Amid historic unemployment claims and attempts at fraud, the agency has struggled to process claims in a timely way with some claimants still waiting to receive payments. 

The agency has hired and trained additional employees and, on Wednesday, the Legislature allocated another $29.1 million to the agency for additional hires. 

As of mid-May, the agency noted it had processed 92% of the eligible claims it had received. But the agency never caught up with all of the delayed benefits before it realized fraudsters were targeting Michigan and other states with false unemployment claims. 

In early June, the state froze 340,000 active claims on the suspicion that they may be fraudulent, but said it processed 41% of them as of last week. 

Still  Cambensy and other lawmakers testified Thursday that their legislative staff continue to field dozens of calls a day from constituents seeking help with unemployment claims. 

On Wednesday, Rep. Mike Mueller, R-Linden, said on the House floor that he had a constituent call and threaten to commit suicide because of financial woes and the inability to get unemployment benefits. 

"This is depressing. ...They’re looking at the computer programs and they’re not necessarily looking at the stories and the people,” Rep. Jack O'Malley, R-Lake Ann, said about the agency. 

Between May 4 and June 12, Cambensy's office conveyed 391 unresolved unemployment cases to the agency but 29 were resolved during that time. 

Because nearly 200 of the unresolved cases involve non-monetary questions, they likely could be cleared quickly if claimants could speak to a live person at the agency, clearing at least part of the backlog,  Cambensy wrote in her letter. 

"Right now, all (legislative staff is) doing is putting the information in the system, it's sitting there and they’re hoping someone will see it," Cambensy said. "...Because there’s an unwillingness to look at a different way of doing things, their plate keeps getting stacked up."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com