Lack of clarity and a set of challenges related to technology issues are continuing to hinder many applicants in the state from successfully filing for unemployment benefits through Michigan’s system.
(TNS) — When Paula Griffin went to reapply at the end of last month for unemployment benefits after waiting for Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency to implement two key federal programs, she noticed on social media that many claimants were able to get their benefits quickly after reopening their claims.
Griffin, 40, was relieved after going weeks without any income. But after reapplying for the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) extension, she saw that she couldn't certify until Feb.15, meaning her benefits would be delayed by at least another two weeks.
“It was frustrating to see others able to certify,” said Griffin, who lives in Grand Rapids. "So many others are just sitting there. And we have to wait all that time until the 15th to be able to get our benefits."
Griffin is just one of the many state residents frustrated over the last six weeks with the state's UIA as they deal with many of the same problems experienced in the spring and summer when there was a torrent of new claims.
Filers spent hours, or even days, trying to get connected to a customer service representative on the phone and had problems logging into the unemployment site. Many claimants say they're experiencing similar issues, and are once again turning to Facebook groups and Reddit in hopes of finding a tip that could help them access their benefits.
The lack of clarity on when benefits would start is one example.
Typically, there is a lag between when someone applies for unemployment and when they can start getting benefits. Those applicants have to wait two weeks until they can start "certifying," essentially promising the state they are still out of work. From there, they must certify every two weeks in order to receive benefits.
But in this case, some claimants were able to get their benefits faster. The new PEUC and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) programs started the week ending Jan. 2 but weren't implemented until weeks later. Some claimants figured out they should backdate their claims to the first week they went without benefits. By doing that, their certifications would typically generate quickly.
But Griffin, and many other claimants, didn't know that. Instead, she applied for benefits starting the day she got her notice from the state that she could reopen her claim. This was a mistake and meant she would have missed out on weeks of benefits between when her benefits expired and when the state implemented the new PUA and PEUC programs.
The new extensions are part of a stimulus package signed into law by then-President Donald Trump after those programs had already expired in Michigan.
It took Griffin 13 calls to the UIA before an agent was able to backdate her claim over the phone Friday, allowing her to certify for the weeks in January between when her benefits had expired and when the extension was up and running.
Lynda Robinson, a spokesperson for the state's UIA, said claimants were advised of how to reapply for benefits in an email, and tips for reopening claims are posted on the state agency's website.
This article was produced in partnership with Outlier Media, which runs an SMS texting service to share information about COVID-19 in Detroit. Text "Detroit" to 73224 for information about food, jobs health and safety.
While the email to PUA claimants, which was independently reviewed by the Detroit Free Press and Outlier Media, and the website did advise claimants to select the date of the first week they were unemployed, it didn't use the word "backdate."
Robinson said if a claimant didn’t backdate, but should have, like Griffin, "they will need to contact UIA to have it corrected."
Despite her struggle in getting her benefits restarted, Griffin considers herself one of the lucky ones.
"I've been blessed," said Griffin, who also said she can't return to work because she has to be home with her two preteen children while they do virtual schooling. "I haven't had anything cut off. So I, really, I've been OK."
The UIA implemented the new federal extensions in waves. The final group, at least 200,000 Michigan residents who had used all their PUA or PEUC benefits last year, were able to reopen their claims starting the last weekend in January.
But many claimants were unable to log in with their MiWAM logins that following Monday. When they called the agency, phone lines were often jammed.
Much of the issues can be traced to the UIA's computer system. It caused similar problems in spring and early summer, when millions of Michigan residents filed for jobless benefits as businesses across the state shut down under the state's stay home order meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
While the majority of businesses have been allowed to reopen, capacity constraints, tightened budgets and slower sales have led to persistent layoffs and loss of work for contractors and freelancers.
As a result, the state’s jobless rate has hovered at elevated levels, reaching 7.5% in December, according to the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. Preliminary estimates show Michigan’s jobless rate in 2020 was 9.7%, compared with 4.1% in 2019.
That means hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents have been relying on jobless benefits for months. Some, like Josefina Diaz-Orsi who has been on benefits for nearly a year, still feel like they're not getting enough guidance or clarity from the UIA.
“I’m a college student. I’m pretty tech-savvy, and this was so hard,” Diaz-Orsi, 21, said of trying to access her PUA benefits this month.
She was working as a student assistant at Wayne State University but lost her job when the school shifted to online learning last March. Diaz-Orsi is waiting on what she expects to be $137 a week to be able to pay for rent, utilities and groceries.
Diaz-Orsi, who lives in Detroit, has been approved for benefits but when she logs into her account, she doesn’t see her weekly benefit amount, as she did last year, but a row of zeros instead.
“It says zero dollars and I still haven’t gotten anything,” she said. “I did get an email from the state but frankly it went over my head.”
When Diaz-Orsi has called the agency, the phone lines are so jammed an automated message says to call back later, and then the line disconnects.
Robinson, when asked about Diaz-Orsi's situation, said, "The amount will populate when payment is released."
Many state residents applying for benefits, like Diaz-Orsi, have never had to navigate unemployment insurance before and they say the system is not customer friendly.
“There is no urgency on their end,” said Andrew Meftah, who applied for unemployment for the first time last year.
“There is absolutely nothing I can do,” he said. “There’s a certain point when you realize they don’t really want to provide these benefits.”
Meftah has been waiting since August for unemployment benefits, certifying every week and calling the agency as soon as the phone lines open each Monday to check on his case. Meftah, who is 28 and lives in Detroit, is a stagehand. He set up audio and video for concerts and events before the pandemic put a stop to those kinds of gatherings.
In August, after a few months of getting benefits, Meftah saw a “stop payment” notice after he logged into his account. A “stop-payment” means the account has been flagged for fraud. Meftah does not know what triggered the investigation and at first he was grateful, thinking the agency might have found somebody trying to steal his identity.
After sending in copies of his state ID and other documents the state asked for, nothing happened. Robinson says about 20,000 people are, like Meftah, waiting for the state to make it to their claim so they can receive benefits again. Robinson says the state, “is working as quickly as possible to get through the backlog of unpaid claims.”
The state has consistently cited fraud or the threat of fraud as one of the primary reasons benefits have been slow to reach legitimate claimants.
“I would like confirmation that they are doing something,” said Meftah, who has dipped far into his personal and business savings to get through the pandemic and does not have any idea when his benefits will start again.
The state has not offered any additional guidance for Meftah or any of the other claimants trying to access their benefits beyond a recommendation for people to log in to their unemployment accounts or check the state’s UIA website.
“I’m just banking on it that eventually it will go through,” he said. “I can’t imagine people who are trying to survive. I’m a lot more blessed when compared to a lot of people."
(c)2021 the Detroit Free Press, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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