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Opinion: We must fix Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency

Matt Hall

People in our state are hurting. Over 2 million people have applied for unemployment since March 15, and the system failed to provide them with swift support. State government has not been there to answer the call and many questions remain unanswered.

That is why the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic is working to get answers from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Unemployment Insurance Agency, and to serve as a voice for Michiganians who have waited months to receive their benefits through no fault of their own.

While UIA understandably struggled to handle the incoming surge of claims, the agency was slow to ask for outside help and staff up to meet the new demand. When I’ve asked UIA officials what the Legislature can do to help, they provide few answers.

Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency was slow to ask for outside help and staff up to meet the new demand, Hall writes.

One request they did make was for the Legislature to appropriate $29.1 million in federal funds for the agency to hire up to 500 temporary workers. The Legislature provided this funding, and now we’re counting on UIA to deliver. On June 29, UIA assigned more employees to the phones and doubled the calls they handled for that week. 

UIA declared on July 6 that everyone who had filed before May 1 and is reachable after multiple attempts has had their case adjudicated. Yet legislators are still hearing stories from people who appear to have slipped between the cracks.

One likely reason for this is UIA’s unworkable information technology system, which director Steve Gray told our committee appears to be designed for federal compliance and not data transparency. Gray testified May 13 that no one should have been waiting more than six weeks to receive benefits.

When legislators provided UIA with lists of claims exceeding that time frame, we were informed these claims did not appear on UIA’s reports. Because of this, UIA has had to spend countless staff hours reprogramming its software and manually validating data. With UIA’s software up for renewal in August, it’s time to find a better solution.

On May 27, UIA reported that it had discovered criminals were using stolen personal information to file false claims and the agency might have paid out hundreds of millions in fraudulent benefits. This raises questions about the adequacy of fraud detection tools the agency had in place.

Because of the widespread previously undetected fraud, 340,000 accounts were frozen and claimants waited weeks to verify their identity and continue receiving their payments. We need to learn what went wrong so we can better protect our unemployment system from fraudulent claims.

We recently learned UIA paid out $8.2 million in duplicate payments to 3,000 claimants. Meanwhile, there are approximately 115,000 claimants who still have not received a decision on their eligibility or are waiting for identity verification. Yes, some of these claims are fraudulent. But many are real people struggling to put food on the table for their families.

I have heard from many claimants who say they would feel better if they could simply set up an appointment at a regional UIA office. Even if that appointment was a few weeks out, at least they would have some peace of mind knowing their claim would be resolved by a certain date. Yet for weeks, UIA has said they are still working on a plan to reopen their regional offices — even while Secretary of State offices figured it out on June 1. 

UIA spent $20,000 on a public relations firm. But people are still waiting weeks for answers. A good relationship starts with good communication, and UIA must hold up its end for residents working through this crisis.

State Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, chairs the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, which includes bipartisan membership from both the Michigan House and Senate.