Economic agency leader defends jobless aid, workplace safety response

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan's Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Susan Corbin defended Thursday the state's handling of record unemployment claims and workplace safety violations during the pandemic in response to questions from lawmakers. 

Corbin defended the actions of the agencies but also acknowledged there is room for change and improvement at both. She noted the state posted a job opening Friday for the next director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency, which has been led by Acting Director Liza Estlund Olson since the former director resigned in November 2020. 

"They just were absolutely hit with an unprecedented volume of claims,” Corbin told senators during her Thursday appointment hearing. 

Susan Corbin, (center) director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, attends a Mackinac Policy Conference press conference with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, and Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Corbin, who was appointed acting director of LEO in October 2020, was before the Senate Advice and Consent Committee for consideration of her Aug. 20 appointment as permanent director.

Corbin noted that the jobless aid agency was tasked with implementing new federal COVID-19 programs, combating suspected fraudulent claims and moving employees out of the office into remote work arrangements — all while claims rose at historic rates.

The situation, she said, was similar to “building the plane while we were trying to fly it.”

Estlund Olson was brought in to try and "stabilize" the agency after former Director Steve Gray's departure, Corbin said. Estlund Olson has worked to flatten the structure of the agency, brought in consultants to expand agency capacity and simplified the language used in communicating with the public, Corbin said. The jobless department also is working change software platform.

Still, the GOP-led Legislature's criticism of Estlund Olson has been ramping up, with House Republicans last week approving a resolution calling for her resignation.

But Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, asked Corbin what lasting changes could be made at the agency, noting the problems exacerbated by the pandemic had been present for several administrations.

"This is an agency that’s been plagued for years with problems," McBroom said.

The agency's search for a new software platform and simpler language in public communication should help sidestep some issues, Corbin said. She also noted that leadership within the agency has been inconstant, with 10 directors over 10 years.

Employees and the public, she said, "deserve somebody who will take strong responsibility and will commit to spending some time with the agency. ...That is something that, from my perspective, would be very helpful.”

Senators also questioned Corbin sharply about the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration's harsh enforcement and publicization of COVID rules during the pandemic, highlighting the agency's decision to send out press releases when companies were cited for a violation. 

"Your department is risking its own reputation and its own working relationships" developed over the years in local business communities, McBroom said. 

Of the 235,000 employers MIOSHA oversees, 532 were cited for COVID related offenses during the pandemic, according to the agency. Of those 532, 322 of the complaints are close, 61 are being appealed, and 149 are open until the employer abates the violation, appeals the citation or pays a penalty.

Corbin said the additional publicization of the citations was done after an influx in complaints from employees worried about some of the practices in their businesses.

"We started issuing press releases because we were getting so many inquiries," said Corbin. The agency did try to work with and educate employers throughout the pandemic, she said.

Sen. Aric Nesbitt, the Lawton Republican who chairs the Senate Advice and Consent Committee, also criticized the agency's "heavy hand" during the pandemic and questioned training the department held on how to form a union. 

Corbin said the training was an effort to "tackle an issue we got a lot of calls about."

"Does the administration tilt the playing field in favor of unions?" Nesbitt asked, noting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's recent announcement that she would reimpose the prevailing wage on some state work.

Corbin said she didn't know how to respond to the question. She noted members of the administration have "strong experiences" with unions and her own mother and father were union members.

“This administration perhaps more than the previous administration has strong ties to unions in Michigan," Corbin said. "We understand the values and appreciate what unions in Michigan have done for workers in this state.”