State Rep. Jack O’Malley, of Lake Ann, called on Michigan’s Unemployment Agency to ratchet up services for tens of thousands of people who are out of work and unable to access needed benefits following testimony Wednesday by the agency’s director before a new bipartisan select committee.
The Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, which features both House and Senate members, will focus on decision-making and preparedness both within the administration and state departments as the public health emergency continues. Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) has experienced notable issues after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a ‘stay home’ executive order which shuttered all businesses that were deemed ‘non-essential.’
The directive created a flood of more than 1.7 million Michigan residents who have filed for jobless claims since mid-March. More than 26 percent of the state’s workers have experienced job disruptions of some kind. The UIA has struggled to keep up with the massive amount of claims, which has led to long wait times, website crashes and understaffing concerns.
“The agency was hit with an onslaught of calls and claims. It’s simply a massive number,” said O’Malley, who sits on the select committee. “And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure people who have been put out of work by the governor’s executive orders can get the money they are due to help keep them going.”
UIA Director Steve Gray addressed the challenges the agency has faced during his testimony, revealing that nearly 135,000 people who have filed claims have yet to be paid. The agency had previously indicated that it can only handle 5,000 of the roughly 150,000 phone calls it receives each day.
In late April, Gray apologized for flaws that were being reported and said the state’s unemployment website was not as user-friendly as it could be.
O’Malley indicated that planning for emergencies did not seem to appear on the department’s radar, leading to unpreparedness and a quick backlog of claims.
“The governor made the proactive decision to shut our state’s economy down to preserve our health system, but the response to the side effects that have come from that decision has been strictly reactive,” O’Malley said. “A proactive decision needed to include proactive contingency planning, and it seems not doing so has led the UIA to a position of playing from behind as it tries to get people assistance they need.
“I look forward to looking into this issue further as there are so many moving parts and so much information that needs to be pored over. This is just the beginning of our work on this particular situation and our committee work as a whole.”