Unemployment chief: Pandemic is ‘user testing on steroids’ for state system

GOP lawmakers repeatedly ask about Whitmer’s role

Restaurants are allowed to be open for takeout, but Grand Traverse Pie Co. in East Lansing is one of the many businesses that have closed for COVID-19 | Susan J. Demas

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown everything wrong with the state’s system for unemployment claims, Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency Director Steve Gray told legislators Wednesday.

More than 1.7 million unique unemployment claims have been made during the crisis, he said during the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, a special panel formed to oversee the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer administration’s COVID-19 response. 

Steve Gray
UIA director Steve Gray | University of Michigan

“When the governor took necessary action to save lives, it became clear that the economic consequences of this public health crisis would be severe and our role would be critical,” Gray said.

More than 34% of the state’s workforce has applied for unemployment, Gray said. The UIA handled on average 5,000 claims of unemployment a week prior to the pandemic, but now claims have seen a 3,300% increase. 

As it stands, Michigan is fifth nationally in initial claims, second in claims resolved and third in claims paid. So far, $5.62 billion in benefits has been paid out to more than 1.3 million workers, the state announced Wednesday.

Many residents expressed frustration about repeatedly not being able to get help as their bills mount. Gray said UIA employees have been working overtime, even seven days a week.

“I love my job and lately there’s been a lot of it to love,” Gray said.

However, there are about 134,000 people with claims that need to be adjudicated, which Gray said has had a personal toll on him and the department. 

Adjudication is the process of checking for a claim’s validity and looking for fraud. Gray said it is an imperfect system. The process, which would normally take two to three weeks to go through, is taking longer due to volume.

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“If I could double my adjudication staff, that would really help with that problem,” Gray said talking about additional staff that have been hired to combat the bottleneck of claims. “The problem is, there’s lots of people that I can hire on a temporary basis, but not people that I can use for adjudication.”

A few representatives said their constituents have reported 2.5-hour holds on the phone with the UIA. Some even reported being hung up on before they could speak with staff. Gray said he hadn’t heard of the hangups, but he would look into it. 

More staff isn’t necessarily the golden ticket to handling all claims in Michigan, Gray said. Ohio added around 1,000 employees to answer phone calls about unemployment claims, but has processed about half the number of claims Michigan has.

“This crisis has been user testing on steroids for our system,” Gray said about figuring out smarter ways to work.

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About 8% of people who have filed for unemployment have not been paid yet, Gray said, in large part due to the lengthy adjudication process.

Republican legislators, including state Reps Julie Calley (R-Portland), Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann) and Matt Hall (R-Marshall) inundated Gray with questions about Whitmer’s communication with the UIA, so much to the point Gray acknowledged their repetition.

Several times, he gave variations of the same sentiment, saying the department has had “constant communication” and has been “kept in the loop” with executive orders that impact the office.

“They were making decisions based on the rapidly changing health environment and they were making life and death decisions,” Gray said about Whitmer’s initial executive orders shutting down businesses. “I can’t expand any further other than to say that we were in the loop.”