Michiganders still struggling with unemployment system

Posted at 7:09 AM, May 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-12 07:09:04-04

(WSYM) — It’s been more than a year since the pandemic began, and despite big changes on the part of the unemployment agency, we’re still seeing some of the same problems that plagued the system last spring.

It begs the question: how did we get here?

“You don’t know where you’re going to be the next day,” says Kelli Martin. “On any given day, if one more thing goes wrong – you’re homeless.”

For martin, a mother, each day feels like a roll of the dice.

On the day I met her, she was behind on rent, her car tags expired, and her cell phone was soon to be cut off.

“It’s really anxiety through the roof,” she says.

It’s an anxiety that began in February after her attempt to do a simple identity verification update on unemployment benefits hit a technical hiccup that sent her finances into a spiral.

And Kelli is far from alone. Elsewhere in Michigan is Linda Tobin.

“My credit cards are maxed out, my savings account, that’s gone, my credit score is a mess,” she says.

Their stories follow countless complaints of delays, errors, and system mishaps The Rebound Detroit has been tracking since last spring.

But even today, over a year since the pandemic first hit, more than 70 percent of you tell me in a survey that you’re still facing difficulties.

Thousands of Michiganders in desperation are seeking out help from the media, employment aid organizations, and from lawmakers.

“In our office alone, we’ve helped almost a thousand people,” says Democratic State Senator Mallory McMorrow.

McMorrow says helping frustrated constituents has effectively become a full-time job for her staff.

“The fact that people have to come to us shows that the system is fundamentally broken,’ she says.

But how did we get here? Was navigating unemployment always this hard?

“All the focus on unemployment was on fraud,” says Andy Stetner with the think thank The Century Foundation.

Stetner tells me many of the problems go back to ten years before the pandemic even began when the state prioritized the rooting out of fraud, creating a system that often treats a claimant like a suspect.

“It was designed to be this way,” says McMorrow. “t is designed to be difficult to access unemployment.”

Budgeting is also a factor. Under Governor Snyder’s administration, the UIA staff was cut by a third.

“There was limited staffing, the back end has not been updated so it’s not user-friendly,” says McMorrow.

But we wanted some perspective, on how Michigan stacks up.

“In terms of actually paying out benefits, Michigan is actually doing okay,” says Stetner.

When I took a look at the data, surprisingly, I found Michigan ranking in the top 12 best-performing states on payouts.

However, when you look at the delays, how long it takes for an applicant to get paid, Michigan is one of the worst.

Kelli has been playing the waiting game for over two months.

“I have called and talked to several people,” she says.

And despite being on the phone with unemployment right now, she says she gets unhelpful, conflicting information.

“You get so many different answers, it’s just hard to know what to do,” she says.

That’s a critique many of you expressed to us in a recent Rebound post. So we questioned the UIA about that allegation. The agency chalked it up to hiring a large amount of people in a short time, ”having to administer new programs” they say ”sometimes leads to confusion among newer staff members.”

But for Kelli, struggling to keep a roof over her daughter’s head, that answer? Simply not good enough.

“Just constantly being told to just wait, just wait just wait, it’s no way to live,” she says.

We are in the process of trying to get both Kelli and Linda some help.

If you’re struggling with an unemployment issue, we recommend you reach out to your state rep or congressperson. Often, they are in the best position to help.

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