Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic holds Thursday hearing
State Rep. Matt Hall, of Marshall, today highlighted the need for transparency from departments overseeing efforts to provide unemployment payments for desperate, out-of-work people during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
Hall chairs the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, which is looking into the decision-making and preparedness of the administration and state departments during the current public health emergency. The bipartisan body, which features both House and Senate members, heard testimony today from Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Jeff Donofrio.
Unemployment Insurance Agency Director Steve Gray addressed the challenges his agency has faced in testimony last week. Gray reported there were 134,000 people still needing payments. It was disclosed in Thursday’s hearing the number is still at nearly 125,000, and countless more people have only received partial payments with weeks owed.
“When you’re a person who has not received a paycheck for seven or eight weeks and still can’t get through to talk to someone, successfully put in a claim or have that claim fulfilled, it’s very demoralizing and stressful,” Hall said. “The lack of disclosure we have seen from both of these agencies in regards to their preparation for this crisis only adds to that confusion and frustration.”
Donofrio largely echoed Gray’s testimony last week, frequently saying the agencies were in “constant communication” with the governor’s office, but not answering questions about conversations he had to prepare for a surge in unemployment claims. Donofrio also would not answer when asked if he proactively sought additional staff to handle the surge, or when that request was transmitted to the administration.
The select committee also welcomed several concerned citizens from across Michigan who have experienced issues with the state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency to speak at Thursday’s hearing. A woman from Marshall explained she was forced to take out a loan to pay bills after trying unsuccessfully since March to receive payment for her claim. She noted she has been unable to speak with anyone at the agency about the unfulfilled payments.
Hall explained he has received complaints about the agency’s poor customer service, which Donofrio said was unacceptable. Legislators and staff who have received pleas from residents about not being able to get through also were met at times with poor service when trying to reach out to the agency, Hall said.
“These agencies have been consistent in stating they’ve been in communication with the administration on how to handle this. The people we heard from across the state today who have tried to file claims were also consistent in explaining that process hasn’t worked,” Hall said. “People are struggling to pay bills and put food on the table. The governor’s orders have caused over 20 percent of the state to be out of work. Based on the vague answers we’ve received, there seemed to be minimal planning or foresight to account for that. I have heard from many people who are looking to resume their livelihoods in part because they simply cannot get through to our state’s unemployment agency to get the financial support they are depending on. I will continue to push for answers and work to hold departments accountable.”