LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan lawmakers increasingly frustrated over delayed unemployment benefits for people out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic are urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to reopen offices so the jobless can get in-person assistance.
Legislators from both parties say the dozen offices, closed due to COVID-19, should open their doors again, by appointment only — similarly to what secretary of state branches offer. The proposal is under consideration as the state still grapples with processing a backlog of claims while also confronting large-scale impostor fraud that led the Unemployment Insurance Agency to temporarily stop paying benefits to hundreds of thousands.
Michigan had the country’s third-highest jobless rate in May, at 21.2%. A staggering 2.1 million-plus eligible claimants have filed since mid-March.
People continue to report being unable to get through jammed phone lines or, if they seek help online, not getting a return call to resolve mistakes or other issues holding up their payments.
“It’s a major failure if we don’t realize that some people … don’t have access to internet, maybe they don’t have the savvy to go around and navigate a system. But also it’s the simple fact that some people just prefer to actually talk to someone,” said Rep. Sara Cambensy, a Marquette Democrat who said constituents have waited more than six weeks for help. “We have to accommodate the people that want that interaction or we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”
Cambensy, who worries the Unemployment Insurance Agency’s “plate just keeps getting stacked up,” spearheaded a lawmakers’ letter to Whitmer on June 12 asking that offices be reopened. Jason Moon, a spokesman for the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, said the agency is working with the Office of the State Employer on a plan to potentially open the field offices.
The Democratic governor and Republican-led Legislature this week unanimously agreed to spend $29 million of federal coronavirus relief aid to pay up to 500 temporary employees for as many as six months to help reduce processing delays. But it largely will cover the salaries of people previously hired to help clear backlogs.
Democratic lawmakers said the funding is not nearly enough to fix a “broken” system in need of long-term structural changes. They are proposing that the state spend $100 million in federal funds to quickly loan $1,000 each to claimants stuck in the logjam.
“We need to take action today to provide immediate relief to people that have waited far too long for relief,” said Rep. Jon Cherry, a Flint Democrat. The initiative was not included in an $880 million supplemental budget bill but may come up in future talks.
An exasperated Jennie Minard, whose family breeds and trains hunting dogs in Beulah, told legislators on Thursday that her husband and son applied for benefits in mid-April. They were able to certify once, she said, but the website has been unresponsive for eight weeks.
“We have spent all of our savings. Our loan deferrals expire this month. We’re worried about not getting back pay or running out of funds by the time they get to us,” Minard said during a legislative hearing. She said the business reopened after stay-at-home restrictions were lifted but has a fifth of its regular customer base.
About 93% of eligible claimants have received or been approved for benefits, according to the Unemployment Insurance Agency. Most of the remaining unpaid claims have been flagged for possible impostor fraud, though 37,000 accounts are in limbo for other reasons.
Benefits have or will resume for at least 200,000 of 340,000 accounts that had been sent stop-payment notices until claimants could further verify their identity. The unemployment agency also has cleared around 100,000 of 200,000 new claims for payment that had been flagged for identity checks due to fraud concerns.
“Our focus remains on getting 100% of eligible Michigan workers 100% of the benefits they deserve. We are using every available resource to verify the identity of legitimate claimants whose payments are held due to increased criminal activity, including 850 dedicated employees and newly formed advanced analytics team,” said director Steve Gray. He will testify this coming week before a House-Senate committee investigating the Whitmer administration’s handling of the pandemic.
The chairman, Republican Rep. Matt Hall of Marshall, said the agency “needs to develop a smarter plan of action to swiftly resolve these issues.
Whitmer — who has faced sharp GOP criticism over unemployment problems — said Michigan has processed more claims than almost every other state but has seen high claims overall after she issued sweeping business and other restrictions to curb the virus and protect lives.
“We have work to do. There’s no question,” she said. “It’s cold comfort to people who are still frustrated and getting through the process.”