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Michigan Works to Fix Its Struggling Unemployment System

Michigan residents are demanding that the state’s unemployment website be repaired as many are trying to file unemployment benefit claims. The state’s system is currently overwhelmed and officials say they are working to fix the issues.

by Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press / April 3, 2020
The Michigan Capitol. Lawmakers in the state last month passed legislation making it more difficult to collect signatures for initiatives to qualify for the ballot. (Shutterstock)

(TNS) — State officials have asked Michiganders to be patient as they try to make adjustments to an unemployment system that is overwhelmed, but, as Michigan's public health crisis turns into an economic one, patience is running out.

Kathy Mooradian said Wednesday, she had enough.

After days of trying to file for unemployment online, then all day trying to call in her claim, she concluded in a fit of frustration, "our governor doesn't give a hoot about any of us."

Labor officials respond that it's not a matter of indifference, it's the situation. Michigan's unemployment claims ending March 28 topped 311,000, more than doubling from 128,000 the week before.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cares deeply and help is on the way, state officials said. Unfortunately, the system is overwhelmed and everyone is in a position that they never anticipated.

Whitmer briefly talked Thursday morning about the challenges with the unemployment claims, saying, that her stay-at-home order has "weighed heavily" on her and acknowledged that the system is overwhelmed.

"My encouragement for folks is, keep attempting to get that application in," she said. "But, know that we understand the incredible strain on the system, the incredible number of people that have been impacted and we are going to work to make sure people get the unemployment that they need to get through this crisis."

The state labor department said it plans to offer more detail soon about who is eligible for extended benefits and its efforts to hire 100 more employees to help process claims.

But in the meantime, Jason Moon, a spokesman for the state Labor Department, said Michiganders shouldn't panic. If nothing else works, they can document their efforts by emailing their concerns directly to leo-coronavirus@michigan.gov.

Fix 'the 800-number'

Since the middle of last month, state labor officials have been besieged with claims and questions from wary Michiganders, and they are trying to sort out, not just the website, but new eligibility requirements.

For the week ending March 21, there were more than 123,000 new claims, more than they've ever had before in one week — even during the recession in 2009. Back then, the highest one-week total was about 77,000 jobless claims.

Nationally, for the week ending March 28, seasonally adjusted jobless claims were more than 6.6 million, doubling from the week before. It was the highest level of initial claims in American history.

Last week, Google searches for “File for unemployment,” an informal measure of interest in the topic, were on the rise nationally, up 62% from the week before, with searches in Michigan up 160%.

On Tuesday, the state's site, which had slowed to a crawl, crashed for nearly two hours before it was restored.

Another issue that the state said was causing problems was the MILogin, the way into the system for a range of services, couldn't process the 25,000 transactions per hour that were coming in. Officials said it seemed to be corrected.

To the state's credit, it has been trying to adjust to a rapidly changing public health crisis in which the number of sick and dead are rising exponentially, and to stop the spread of the virus, businesses have been shut down and folks are out of work.

But, right now, Mooradian — and many other frustrated Michiganders — don't want explanations. She said she wants "the damn 800-number" fixed, a twist on the governor's campaign catchphrase: "Fix the damn roads."

The system's big problem

It's not that the unemployment system is entirely broken.

Many states are handling an unprecedented number of claims, and, in Michigan, many claims are going through without any problems, filers acknowledged. It helps that Michiganders can file online at any time — day or night.

The problem, however, comes in when a caller encounters a glitch or has a question.

Mooradian, for instance, said she was able to log on, but as she was filing, something went wrong with the automated system. As a result, it told her to call in her claim, but that's when things started to go wrong.

Then the unemployment line, she said, "cannot complete my call, is too busy sometimes it answers and I get to press 1, then it just hangs up," she said. "This has happened over 100 times."

For Mooradian, a 65-year-old Livonia resident, this just added to her frustration about the pandemic and not being able to work. It also didn't help that she never filed an unemployment claim — nor, she said, had she ever been jobless.

Normally, unemployment officials said, glitches and questions can be handled by a call center that has been shut down because of the efforts to keep people from gathering in groups and at home so they don't catch the virus.

In other words: In the pandemic, the fail-safes failed.

Michiganders have specific questions

Labor lawyer Michael Pitt, the managing partner of Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers in Royal Oak, said now that Congress has passed relief legislation, many Michiganders, and small companies should be able to exhale — for now.

The state, with federal money, has expanded coverage to include people who otherwise would be left out, self-employed workers, independent contractors, freelancers, and people who get paid by the job.

But, state officials are still figuring out all the details.

And for Michiganders that's another problem: There's no one to answer questions.

Sheryl Wentworth, for example, wants to know whether she'd be eligible for partial unemployment loss. The 62-year-old Lapeer resident is a school district aide, who helps children get on and off the bus.

She's getting a paycheck, but no longer getting any incentive pay.

Paul Bedich, 55, of South Lyon said he feels like public officials keep saying that help is on the way, but his frustration is the system to get that help doesn't seem to be working.

When he goes online, it tells him to call. When he calls, it tells him to go online.

"Everybody's telling you there's money out there, and you're already heightened with frustration and worry," Bedich said. "They tell you there's a path, you go down the path and you find the path is a loop."

To file for unemployment

Go online at Michigan.gov/UIA. Names that begin with A-L file claims on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. Names beginning with M-Z on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Saturdays are for any who could not file the rest of the week.

Or call 866-500-0017. Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. Names that that begin with A-L file claims Monday and Wednesday. Names beginning with M-Z on Tuesday and Thursday. Fridays and Saturdays are for any who could not call on designated days.

©2020 the Detroit Free Press, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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