House OKs bill clarifying eligibility rules for federal unemployment aid

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House on Tuesday voted 101-3 to approve a bill that would resolve a large number of unemployment problems stemming from confusion over an unemployed individual's availability for work during the pandemic. 

The problem stems from an untold number of individuals eligible for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance who were confused when applying for jobless aid about whether to mark they were "able and available" for full-time work, a requirement in Michigan to receive jobless aid in normal times. 

The bill, which the Unemployment Insurance Agency supported, will head back to the Senate for concurrence and then on to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk. 

Michigan House of Representatives is seen in this file photo from 2018.

The legislation is the latest effort to correct issues that affected thousands of Michigan residents who believed they qualified for unemployment under expanded federal rules during the COVID-19 pandemic, only to be told months after being paid that they were ineligible and owed money back to the state.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was a pandemic-specific federal program tailored toward those who wouldn't usually qualify for unemployment aid, such as gig workers, self-employed, or those with part-time jobs. But the federal measures ensuring aid for part-timers conflicted with state law limiting jobless aid to full-time workers. 

When applying for PUA, in some cases, individuals marked they were not "able and available" for full-time work because they weren't sure if they could return to work while the pandemic still raged, they were taking care of a sick loved one or they had to remain home to take care of their kids because of school closures. Others were part-time workers who were eligible under the guidelines of the federal pandemic jobless aid but not under state law, so they were unsure how to mark the state eligibility question when applying.

The confusion over the qualification meant many applicants never received unemployment payments because they were inappropriately screened out through the "able and available" criteria or were later pinged for answering they were "able and available" when they'd only been working part-time. 

The issue was appealed up to the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Appeals Commission last year, but the commission has yet to rule on the question.

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, introduced the legislation after several constituents brought the issue to him. 

In simplest terms, the legislation "would turn off the able and available requirement for federal claims filed during the pandemic," Irwin said. The lawmaker encouraged people who might be eligible under the change in law to pursue their cases proactively and persistently with the state agency. 

"After working on these issues for the last two years, my advice to every claimant is to be an advocate for your claim and continue pressing it and hold the UIA accountable because they're still under water," Irwin said. 

He acknowledged the bill solves one of several issues that arose during the pandemic because of Michigan's unemployment law and the rushed implementation of federal pandemic programs. 

"The system is just so byzantine and it's set up with so many traps for people to fall into," Irwin said.

A separate House bill approved by the lower chamber last month would grant waivers to individuals who were "improperly paid" federal benefits between Feb. 7, 2020 and Sept. 5, 2021 because of faulty eligibility criteria the state developed and later had to correct under federal pressure.

The U.S. Department of Labor earlier this month directed state unemployment agencies to expand waivers for potentially thousands of people who were unwittingly caught up in the rushed rollout of federal unemployment relief. 

That guidance also seems to address the "able and available" question, clearing the way — at the federal level at least — for people who marked they were not "able and available" for work because of the pandemic. 

The federal guidance also broadly absolved others who received a higher rate of weekly pay than they were supposed to get because of a state error.

But the implementation of the federal waiver guidance, other waivers or even Irwin's bill will come down to the state agency's ability and willingness to set up a redetermination process for those who might be again eligible under the changes.