GOP leader asks Whitmer to fire unemployment director

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

House Speaker Jason Wentworth called on the governor Thursday to fire the leader of Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency about two weeks before Acting Director Liza Estlund Olson is scheduled to testify in a House Oversight Committee. 

Estlund Olson, who took over in November upon the resignation of the former director, has failed to correct items flagged by federal regulators, denied benefits to some residents who were entitled to them and gave them to others who were not, and failed to hand over some documents requested by the House Oversight Committee, said Wentworth, R-Farwell. 

He added that there are still 20,000 unpaid Michigan workers waiting on unemployment and that the state kept agency offices closed for 15 months during the pandemic. 

The UIA, Wentworth said, "isn't getting the job done for Michigan families."

Jason Wentworth (R) claps before he addresses his collegues as Speaker of The House, as the Michigan Legislature holds its first of the 101st session at the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

"We have all waited long enough and given them more than enough chances, but it just isn’t getting any better," he said in a statement. "It is time for Gov. Whitmer to make a change and finally give people struggling with unemployment a fighting chance.” 

The agency referred questions to Whitmer's office. 

Whitmer's office celebrated the 99% of eligible Michigan residents who received benefits during the pandemic and said it was working to give benefits to the final 1%.

"It's unfortunate that the Legislature is focused on lobbing partisan political attacks rather than partnering with the administration to pass legislation introduced by Democrats in the Legislature, which would improve unemployment services for people who've lost a job through no fault of their own during a global pandemic," Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said. 

The government put people in a "terrible position" when the state shut down because of COVID-19 and the unemployment agency was unable to provide them respite during that time, Wentworth said. 

“Far too many good people have been forced out of their jobs and left out to dry by their state government," the speaker said. "They are all done waiting for UIA to figure it out. I’m done hearing all their excuses. The governor has to make a change and give Michigan families the lifeline they deserve.” 

Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, also announced Thursday that Estlund Olson had agreed to testify before the House Oversight Committee Sept. 9 to "get answers and have a clear picture of what is going on at the agency."

“The list of problems at the agency continues to get longer," Johnson said in a statement. "People we represent continue to not receive an effective level of service." 

The unemployment agency has been beset by challenges over the past year and a half amid record unemployment claims, the implementation of new federal programs and persistent fraudulent attacks on the system. 

Some claimants have waited months to get any kind of payment from the agency. 

Under former Director Steve Gray, the agency temporarily dismantled some of its security systems to get claims through more quickly at the height of the pandemic. But it also opened a doorway further for fraudsters to access the system. 

More than two dozen people have been charged so far in the state and federal investigation into the matter, which could have resulted in "hundreds of millions" of improperly paid benefits. 

In January, the federal government met with UIA officials to notify them that they'd formulated illegitimate reasons for qualifying to some federal unemployment benefits. The federal monitors formally told the agency in February that they'd need to rectify the issue but the agency waited until June to notify recipients. 

The June mailing included 648,100 letters to recipients to notify them that they would need to re-attest to their eligibility for the benefits they'd already received and, if deemed ineligible, pay those benefits back. Another 42,092 letters were sent to recipients who had been denied benefits under the old qualifying reasons and might now be eligible. 

Whitmer later said she would seek waivers for those who were deemed ineligible under the new qualifying reasons. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com