GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The need is historic. Since the coronavirus shut down in Michigan, more than 1 million people have reached out to the state for unemployment benefits.
That’s nearly one of every four workers.
But while the state says most already are getting through to file claims, snags in the system and overloaded phone lines have left tens of thousands still going without.
For many, the frustration continues to mount with every busy signal, every disconnected call, every unpaid bill.
HUNDREDS OF CALLS EACH DAY
Mike Melle of Ionia, a laid off Walmart assistant manager, made call after call after call last week to Michigan’s unemployment line.
“Welcome to the Michigan Unemployment Insurance agency. We are experiencing heavy call volumes,” the recorded voice told him.
“So calling again,” Melle said. “This is number 775 times I’ve called today.”
And he dialed again, and again.
“Your call cannot be completed at this time. Please try again later,” a recorded voice told Tammy Langeland of Coopersville, a furloughed human resources recruiter.
“I just keep hitting redial and this is what happens,” she said. “Now it’s busy and this is what I do for hours on end.
“In the last two weeks, I have probably done over 4,000 calls to the unemployment office to try to get through.
“We have a house payment due, we have car payments, we have insurance. I’m trying to buy groceries. We couldn’t need this money any more than we need it right now,” said Langeland, who expects to wait four to six weeks for her benefits.
“Welcome to Verizon Wireless,” a recorded voice told Ashly Hawley of Cedar Springs. “Your call cannot be completed as the called party is temporarily unavailable.”
“It’s frustrating to me because I’ve now called over 1,000 time since March 23,” Hawley said.
‘STUCK WITH NOTHING’
In recent weeks, the most frequent complaint to the News 8 newsroom has not been about social distancing or the governor’s stay-home order. It has been about the state’s unemployment system, by far — hundreds of emails and calls.
“Filing online is fast, convenient and it’s available 24 hours a day,” one of the state’s phone recordings says.
Not for everybody, though. Target 8 asked a handful of West Michigan residents to record through cellphone video what they’re going through.
“It’s Thursday (April 9) at 2:15 in the afternoon,” Melle, the out-of-work Walmart assistant manager, said. “I’ve been up since 8 o’clock this morning. Been trying to call every day.”
He lost his job March 23. His wife also was laid off.
Melle said he was able to file a claim through the state’s online MiWAM system.
But, he said, “Apparently I messed up on something, or they needed extra something from me.”
So he started every morning at 8 on the phone to the state’s 1.800 number, hoping to fix it.
“I’ve been calling since Sunday. Today is Thursday,” he said last week. “Can’t get through. All I keep getting is this: ‘Filing online is fast, convenient…’
“At this point, I’m just stuck with nothing,” he said.
That is until late last week, after thousands of calls, when he finally got through and got his first unemployment check deposited into his account.
Ashly Hawley is not so lucky. She works for a Rockford agency that provides in-home care for the elderly but has been out of a job since March 23.
“It is frustrating,” she wrote in an email to News 8. “I’m losing my mind.
“If I don’t get unemployment soon, I won’t be able to pay my bills next month and that freaks me out,” she wrote. “I’ve been fortunate enough to defer a couple payments but if I don’t get unemployment soon, I’m going to have to defer payments again in May, and I’m not sure that is allowed or how that will affect me.”
Hawley said she filed for unemployment online but a mistake in her Social Security number blocked her.
“Welcome to the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency,” she heard in a recent call. “We are experiencing heavy call volumes.”
INCREASED STAFFING NOT ENOUGH
The state says COVID-19 has exposed cracks in its unemployment system.
More than 1 million new unemployment claims have been filed since March 15, an increase of more than 5,000% over a four-week period.
The state said it has paid $745 million to more than 725,000 so far, an average of about $1,027 each.
State officials say that about 95% of the 1 million who have filed have been able to get through, most of them online. But that still leaves about 5%, roughly 50,000 people, without help.
“We understand how frustrating delays can be at this time,” Michigan Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Jeff Donofrio said in a teleconference on Wednesday.
It appears that simple mistakes made during online applications — typos, old email addresses, old cell phone numbers, forgotten passwords — are blocking many.
The system also is denying some because they marked “no” online where it asked if they were looking for a new job, an unreasonable request considering most are out of work only temporarily.
The only way to fix mistakes is by phone and those lines are jammed like at no other time in the state’s history, despite the state expanding hours and quadrupling the number of call takers.
“We continue to expand the phone lines. We continue to put more people on the phones,” the state Labor and Economic Opportunity director said.
FINALLY THROUGH — THEN DISCONNECTED
Julie Welton-Power, of Hastings, owns a nonessential hair salon and her husband Tim is a nonessential furnace and AC installer.
“So today about 1:30, I proceeded to call unemployment, got through, did all the Q&A that they asked me, answered all their 40 questions, and then was put on hold to wait for an agent to help me out,” she said late last week.
“Agent Kevin answered the phone, and I said, ‘Hi, Kevin,’ and he hung up on me. Now, I’m really frustrated because it’s the first time in four weeks that I’ve been able to get through.”
She’s certain an old fraudulent claim is blocking her husband’s unemployment. She’s got to fix that over the phone.
“He was in Navy,” she said of her husband. “He’s been employed there 30 years; we pay into taxes every year; it should not be an issue.
“Bills won’t get paid if we don’t get it soon and mortgage won’t get paid,” she said.
She now believes that the $1,900 meant for her husband has ended up in a fraudulent account.
“This is beyond imaginable that Michigan can’t get this right,” she said.