Opinion: Fix the broken unemployment system

Brandt Iden

There are more than a million reasons why Michigan’s unemployment benefits filing system must be fixed in the wake of COVID-19. Literally.

Since the coronavirus was detected here in mid-March, about 1.2 million Michigan residents — roughly a quarter of the state’s overall labor force — have lost their jobs as the economy ground to a halt.

If that weren’t bad enough, when they turn to the state Unemployment Insurance Agency for help, our system is failing them by not meeting their needs nearly fast enough.

People trying to file for benefits wait for hours on the phone; many can’t get through at all. Additionally, overwhelmed with massive requests never before seen in our state’s history, the UIA’s website has crashed twice in the last 30 days. If you’re lucky enough to connect to the website, most find it confusing, illogical and hard to navigate.

Michigan claims

Michigan residents deserve and demand better. That’s why I introduced House Bill 5712 last week in the state House to ramp up the process of evaluating and reforming the Unemployment Insurance Agency. This legislation is still in its infancy, intended to ignite action among my colleagues to institute best practices for improving transparency, organization and operations within UIA — leading to faster response times and better customer service. We must take action now so everyone gets the unemployment benefits they are due, and improve the system for future generations of Michigan residents to ensure a systematic failure like this does not happen again.

Like every state legislator in Michigan, my office has been flooded with calls and emails from residents struggling to access their unemployment benefits after losing their jobs.

A Kalamazoo County woman told us she filed for unemployment on March 19 after her office shut down because of the pandemic. “I have made more than 100 calls in a day, waited for hours upon hours on their ‘chat’ app with no success, and am feeling extremely disappointed on how my claim is being handled,” she wrote. “I understand during these crazy times that everyone is working hard to try and resolve this, but in the meantime I'm down to a negative bank account.”

Thanks to my excellent staff, her case was finally resolved April 16 and money is headed her way — but not everyone has the luxury of waiting a month. These delays within UIA are frustrating and unacceptable.

Another Kalamazoo County resident lost their job four weeks ago due to the coronavirus shutdown and immediately filed for bankruptcy. Trying to get questions answered by phone, email and online chat have failed. “There's an issue with my unemployment, but I can't get ahold of anyone ... please help,” the constituent wrote. “I'm desperate. I don't know what to do.”

A 70-year old man has had trouble getting the Unemployment Insurance Agency to verify his identity and salary. While other employees at his company have begun receiving unemployment benefits, he remains on hold waiting for UIA action. 

State Rep. Brandt Iden

These are just a few examples of how the unemployment filing system has failed hardworking people right here in my community. There are hundreds — potentially thousands — more.

My colleagues and I are trying to help in any way we can. We face challenges getting answers just like you do, but our citizens deserve better, and we must work swiftly to address these problems and take action to get your government working for you.

Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Township, represents the 61st District in the Michigan House.