Jobless agency still failing unemployed

There’s not much worse than being out of work, especially around the holidays. And for the thousands of Michiganians who are still waiting for unemployment benefits, it’s inexcusable that the state hasn’t rectified the glitches in its jobless system — eight months after pandemic shutdowns began.

Now with new COVID-19 restrictions from the state Health Department and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer once again impacting restaurants, theaters and casinos, among other businesses, expect unemployment claims to spike over the next few weeks.

Just last week unemployment claims in Michigan almost doubledfrom the week prior to more than 32,000.

The state shutdown orders are responsible for much of these layoffs, and the state has a responsibility to ease their impact on the laid-off workers.

The Unemployment Insurance Agency has to prepare for the anticipated influx of claims, but it must first address the backlog ASAP.

While the initial flood of claims this spring following the state’s lockdown overwhelmed Michigan’s unemployment system — as happened in other states — the UIA didn’t adjust quickly enough to the increased demand, leaving many unemployed individuals feeling helpless to navigate an already cumbersome website. In April, the state unemployment rate reached 24%.

To make matters worse, Michigan’s unemployment offices have remained closed since the pandemic began, leaving the jobless without much recourse to resolve problems.

It wasn’t until the end of last month that the UIA finally allowed for scheduled phone appointments to help individuals with claim issues. Before that, it was nearly impossible to talk to an agent by phone — or even leave a message.

Next week, the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic is hearing testimony from new UIA Acting Director Liza Estlund Olson, whom Whitmer appointed earlier this month after Director Steve Gray resigned.

A spokesman for committee chairman Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, says the group plans to get updated numbers and a progress report from the agency, as it has during previous meetings this year.

“We heard stories from people who had not been paid timely for their claims and were struggling to pay bills and put food on the table through no fault of their own,” Hall said in a statement following Gray’s resignation early this month. “We still must hear how the UIA plans to address these problems going forward — including how they will better communicate issues as they arise, combat fraud and deliver a more user-friendly service.”

Lawmakers should demand answers from Olson regarding the long claim delays, as well as reports of false fraud accusations, which have slowed approval for many filers.

Without additional unemployment support from the federal government, Michigan filers will be fully dependent on this state for assistance. It should be ready to help them.

— The Detroit News


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