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Michigan House panel criticizes state unemployment agency

Unemployment Insurance Claims Office photo
flickr
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Unemployment Insurance Claims Office

Republicans in the Michigan House Oversight committee criticized the state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency acting director on Thursday, asking her to address how the agency has failed residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mass unemployment spread nationally during the pandemic and in Michigan the state unemployment agency has paid out $38 billion dollars to 2.4 million Michigan workers since the beginning of the pandemic, according to acting director Liza Estlund Olson.

Committee Chair Rep. Steve Johnson, citing what he’s heard from his constituents, went back and forth with Estlund Olson throughout the meeting to ask her to address what he calls “failures” by the agency. They include slow payment of benefits and the nearly 700,000 residents who received notifications that they may have to repay their Pandemic Unemployment Assistance from the past 18 months.

The U.S. Department of Labor required state unemployment agencies to end $300 a week federal payments for those who qualified under four now ineligible reasons and for them to reapply for eligibility, Estlund Olson said. They do not need to repay those benefits if claimants used one of the four now ineligible options for qualifications, a concern members of the committee expressed.

Since the beginning of the pandemic the UIA has processed more than 5.3 million claims, 26 times the normal workload, Estlund Olson said. The agency has been getting 23,000 calls a week since April and has answered 2.4 million calls and 553,000 virtual chats.

The agency has been criticized throughout the pandemic for its lack of speed in paying benefits as it also tries to remove attempts at fraud.

“This is not an easy job. If it were, the previous administration had eight years, and seven UI directors, who could have made changes a long time ago,” Estlund Olson said. “While we are close to paying every single eligible claimant for benefits they qualify for, we are not at 100%, but we are committed to making sure they receive every dollar they are entitled to.”

Johnson countered that leaders should take responsibility and not blame other people.

Speaker of the House Jason Wentworth called on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in late August to remove Estlund Olson from her position. He said the agency needed a change because it failed to open its offices for in-person appointments during the pandemic, a lack of transparency about processes and being slow to issue payments.

The agency will ask the state to look at different unemployment benefits and employer tax systems in order to replace the system the agency has used since 2012, Estlund Olson said at the meeting. The current system, though ahead of its time 10 years ago, needs to be able to accommodate the state’s changing needs.