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Michigan unemployment director says more staff will answer phones

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The director of Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency said Wednesday the state will "dramatically" improve people's ability to reach staff over the phone but was less definitive about when physical offices will reopen.

The state will begin shifting workers' focus to the phone lines next week, said Steve Gray, the director of the agency, which has faced criticism for being overwhelmed by unprecedented filings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are going to have a significant number of people on the phones," Gray told a joint committee of state lawmakers. "We’ll be able to handle a significantly larger number of calls that come in."

Since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer began shutting down much of the state's economy in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the Unemployment Insurance Agency has faced record filings. The agency says it's paid out more than $14 billion in benefits to more than 2.1 million people.

However, thousands of Michigan residents forced out of work by the virus haven't been able to get their benefits for weeks. Many, like Monica Jones, 57, of Grand Rapids, have said they've repeatedly called the agency without being able to get through to an employee.

Jones, who doesn't have a computer and has struggled to access the state's unemployment website through her iPhone, lost her job at a retail store at the end of March. She hasn't received benefits since then. She ended up getting a temporary job in May, which she called her "lifesaver."

"I am begging for help," Jones said of her situation this week. "I sent them letters. They never called me. They don’t answer the phone."

The Unemployment Insurance Agency decided to focus workers on the state's online filing system early on in the pandemic, according to officials.

Now, Gray said, after making progress dealing with a wave of fraudulent claims, resources will be shifted to the phone lines. The director said the agency wants to "dramatically" improve the ability for people to talk to employees.

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

“I am committed to very quickly, dramatically improving the access that people have over the phones,” Gray said.

He made the comments Wednesday during a hearing of the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, an oversight panel that features lawmakers from both the Michigan House and Senate.

Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, questioned when Gray would reopen physical unemployment offices around the state to help people get answers about their claims.

Last week, a bipartisan group of 12 Michigan House members sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, requesting a limited reopening of the offices similar to what was done with Secretary of State branches. Those branches opened for limited appointments starting June 1. Unemployment offices across the state have been closed for in-person transactions since March 18. 

"There are people out there, they can’t get through," LaSata said. "They just want to talk to somebody."

Gray said the state is working on a reopening plan for the offices, but he didn't give a specific date and noted that the Secretary of State already had an appointment system in place, unlike the unemployment agency.

Kentucky opened its offices too early and had 10-hour lines, Gray added.

Sen. Kim LaSata

"Ten-hour lines? That shows you the need,” LaSata responded.

“What is going to be done tomorrow?" she asked. "We can’t continue to wait and see."

Gray said the agency has gone from 130 people helping unemployment claimants at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis to about 2,200. In recent weeks, the state has added about 850 workers. Those people were originally going to focus on responding to phone calls, but they have had to work on resolving a wave of fraudulent claims that have hit Michigan and other states, Gray said.

Beginning next week, the agency will be able to direct more staff to the phone lines and the agency "will see a significant decrease" in the demand for people to come into the offices when they reopen, the director added.

Todd Cook, who works in legislative affairs for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, which houses the agency, said employees meeting with people in-person in physical offices tend to be less efficient than those working on the phones.

But Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, said the physical offices would help give people hope because they would have concrete appointment dates.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.

cmauger@detroitnews.com