Labor Voices: Legislature must fix unemployment system


The disaster at the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency is nothing short of reprehensible, and it’s time to fix it.

Under Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, tens of thousands of Michigan workers were falsely accused of committing unemployment fraud. Wages were garnished. Overbearing bill collectors were allowed to employ a wide range of loathsome techniques designed to intimidate — and they did. Income tax returns were wrongly seized from families who anticipated and needed the money. Through no fault of their own, many victims were forced to bear the economic stigma of bankruptcy.

But instead of immediately accepting responsibility and taking swift action to help make victims whole, the office chose to blame a computer glitch.

This computer glitch has lasted far too long to qualify as a viable explanation, especially when those glitches were well-known and their impact will be borne by innocent victims for years to come.

The response from the governor’s administration was callous indifference. While innocent victims justifiably looked to the state for some kind of relief, the legislature, with approval of the governor, tapped into the unemployment agency’s funds to balance the state budget. These were funds that could have — and should have — been deployed to provide sorely needed relief.

The state’s irresponsibility was compounded by a checkered administration of the law.

An earlier audit raised serious and disturbing questions about uneven enforcement of key provisions in the statute. While the lives of innocent victims were systematically destroyed by an overly aggressive unemployment agency, there was no corresponding intensity in pursuing corporations that were delinquent in paying their unemployment taxes.

In other words, it seems the system has been rigged to give a free pass to big corporations that brazenly violated the law while regular working people who did nothing wrong got kicked in the teeth.

To make matters worse, when unemployed workers filed a federal lawsuit against the state, they were met with fierce resistance from Attorney General Bill Schuette. Instead of intervening on these workers’ behalf, Schuette fought them tooth and nail by defending Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation penalties for unemployment fraud, and arguing for the judge to dismiss the case.

The emotional consequences of this gross miscarriage of government authority proved to be too heavy of a burden for some families. After all, how can the state ever possibly repair the families that were wracked by divorce and estrangement?

While the governor’s office continues to offer lame apologies that paper over its own mistakes, Democrats in the legislature are taking decisive action to repair the damage.

They have announced legislation that reforms the state unemployment system and will prevent the type of errors that culminated in damaged careers and families. Further, the plan includes provisions to fairly compensate the victims, as well as measures to prevent the jack-booted response that characterized previous enforcement efforts by the state. And it provides penalties for corporations that fail, or choose to ignore, the legal mandate to pay their taxes in a timely fashion.

The legislature needs to take action now and pass this important legislation. We need both parties working together to make this right, and we need our elected officials to start treating jobless workers with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Ron Bieber is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.