Opinion: Michigan unemployment agency must do better in 2021

Jim Runestad

As the difficulties of 2020 continue, many out-of-work folks are still waiting to receive their unemployment insurance money. And now, on top of the missing payments, unanswered phones and broken website, we find out that our state lost up to an estimated $1.5 billion in fraudulent Unemployment Insurance Agency claims.

That is a catastrophic number. Estimates say more than a billion dollars have been paid out to criminals defrauding the system, and not to workers forced out of their jobs by the shutdown.

If there was ever a time for a reset at the UIA, it’s now.

I hear every day from people in my district just trying to get by, but who still can’t get the money owed to them. I hear from folks like one man, whose son has been waiting nearly eight months to get his unemployment funds. He’s just trying to make ends meet, for him and his family. And all the while his government continues to let him down.

If the new year offers a chance for new beginnings, it’s time for a reset in the Unemployment Insurance Agency, Runestad writes.

I hear stories like this all the time as my staff and I work through hundreds and hundreds of cases of folks in need — folks who are not being heard or helped by the UIA. Thankfully, my team and I have been able to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and help some of our constituents get their promised funds. But still, others have yet to see a dime of what they’re owed.

As bad as the backlog has become, a recent independent report found that the UIA has become more vulnerable to fraudulent claims and somehow lost up to $1.5 billion to such fraud.

In Senate committee hearings this fall, the newly appointed head of the UIA, Liza Estlund Olson, outlined steps to get the agency’s act under control. And while new leadership is a step in the right direction, the agency has a lot more steps that need to be taken.

We have taken several steps of our own in the Senate to help workers.

►Extended benefits to workers who are out of work due to no fault of their own;

►Held harmless the experience ratings of employers who are forced to lay off their workers because of government shutdowns.

►Appropriated an additional $98.4 million in federal money to the UIA to help benefits get out the door to eligible claimants.

►Passed Senate Bill 748 to appropriate $220 million to fund a benefit extension if federal funds aren’t made available, which Whitmer vetoed Tuesday.

But simply throwing more money and resources at the problem is not going to be enough. My colleagues and I voted to extend unemployment benefits; unfortunately, that does no good if the agency responsible for administering them can’t do its job.

The Unemployment Insurance Agency — from the leadership in Olson on down to every single caseworker — needs to do better. They need to do better because folks out of work deserve better.

If the new year offers a chance for new beginnings, it’s time for a reset in the Unemployment Insurance Agency. Because people across Michigan need action, not more mismanagement.

State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, represents Michigan’s 15th District.