GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — New unemployment information came directly from the acting director of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency.
She spoke with FOX 17 for nearly 20 minutes this week, going over ID verification, fraud and why people are being asked to send in documents over and over.
“Our motto is, if a claimant is eligible for benefits, then we pay them their benefits,” said Liza Estlund Olson, acting director of Michigan’s UIA.
She sat down for a Zoom interview to discuss the enormous volume of claims the agency’s dealing with.
Right now, workers are handling 86 times the total amount of claims they did back in 2019 when the agency had 50,000 claims.
The UIA is currently at more than 4,000,000, which is an 8600% increase.
“That’s just a huge volume for an agency that for everything we do in terms of the employer side and the claimant side, we only had 650 people - and so now we have almost 3,000 people, and we’re able to keep moving forward. That doesn’t mean we have all of the work done, but we’re significantly closer to paying almost everybody who has a claim in the system," said Estlund Olson.
Frustrated claimants contact the FOX 17 Problem Solvers every day. They can’t get their issues solved, some have waited months if not a year, and they’re constantly told to wait and to just keep uploading their documents.
RYAN: “Genuine IDs that are legible--some people tell me they’ve sent them over and over, they’ve mailed them over and over, they’ve faxed them over and over, and yet they’re told to send them again. Why is that happening?"
LIZA: “I would have to check into that. I mean, I don’t know why we would be requiring … my understanding is we’re only supposed to be asking if we look at it, and we can tell that it is not legible. So, I would have to check into that.”
WAITING ON PAYMENTS
There are thousands who are waiting to be paid, and a lot of them may not be eligible.
Others are, but they are held up by red tape or glitches in the system, and they don’t get their money until TV stations got involved.
RYAN: “When they can’t get their issues solved on their own but the news can, what does that say, and do you think the state has any responsibility for some of these people losing things (homes, cars, etc.)?"
LIZA: “We are doing the best we can. Obviously, you get to work on one claim at a time we don’t. We have to work on all the claims that come in, and every week we have 10,000 more claims coming in. We have to work those, we have to work the ones that are currently in progress, we have to work all the fraud claims, we have multiple sets of fraud claims, we have people who’ve been victims of ID theft that we work, but we also have people who are working and collecting and we’re dealing with that fraud as well. So, we have a lot of work to do, and we are clearly trying to get to everybody as quickly as we can.”
To handle the workload, the agency is now requiring mandatory overtime.
A big complaint that comes into our newsroom is, "Why are unqualified workers providing different answers every time someone calls in with a question?"
“And as you can imagine, keeping people on the phone is difficult when people are yelling at them every day and calling them horrible names and stuff like that,” said Estlund Olson. “So, we do have some turnover in that area, which then requires us to continue to hire new people.”
“I also think there are people out there who ‘answer shop,’” she said. “They didn’t like the answer they were given the first time, so they call back and they try to get somebody to tell them a different answer.”
The agency’s previous director, Steve Gray, told people even if they babysat here and there, they’d likely qualify for benefits. [Starts at 25:52]
QUESTION: “My kid’s school closed because of COVID-19; do I qualify for PUA even if I never had a real job? Just babysitted my daughter’s kids for $50 to $75 a week."
GRAY: “So um, yes, you should qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. You go in, and when you put in your social security number, it’ll check to see whether you had enough covered wages in the past, and if you don’t, then it’ll take you right to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance application, and you’ll be able to complete that.
PROOF OF INCOME
Proof of income was something the federal government allowed states to decide for PUA, as to whether it required the documents or not.
A UIA employee tells me most states did require proof and some even had a direct link to their treasury. If someone applied for PUA but did not have a tax return on file, they were denied.
Other states required proof of income when people applied or if they wanted to increase their weekly benefit amounts.
Michigan chose to default to self attestation, meaning people could just say they lost work without proof.
In December, Congress passed the Continued Assistance Act. That’s when the federal government required anyone getting benefits after Dec. 27, 2020 to submit proof of income within 21 days or 90 days.
“You know, you have to show attachment to the workforce; you have to provide identity verification; you have to show wages, which was not the case in the beginning. But they have retroactively indicated that we have to look at those issues,” said Estlund Olson.
Claimants are also concerned about their IDs and social security info.
If there’s known fraud, including internally, how safe is that information when random workers open it up at home?
“Everybody who works for us has had a background check,” said Estlund Olson. “Everybody who works for us signs a confidentiality agreement indicating that they will keep the information that they receive confidential.”
“Our workers know and understand that we have access to people’s most personal information,” she said. “There’s never been a data breach for the state of Michigan’s information, so there’s not a problem with people being able to upload their information into our secure system.”
INTEREST ON MONEY
Some want to know if the state is not paying them, is it collecting interest on their money?
“The money we receive is federal dollars, so it goes into our trust fund, and as we pay it out, we use it. If it’s sitting in our system, there’s interest accruing,” said Estlund Olson. “But I have to tell you, we’re not holding onto money to get some interest. We pay as soon as a claimant is eligible.”
The agency has several offices around the state, but they’re still shut down due to COVID and safety protocols.
There’s only one in Grand Rapids, with the next-closest locations in Muskegon and Kalamazoo.
Estlund Olson tells me while the agency is working on a video chat option for claimants, offices will remain shut down for now.
“As soon as we can, and we have to look at the safety. We have had a Michigan Works staff person who was beaten up by a claimant, and the person had nothing to do with UI, but the claimant was that mad. We’ve had somebody break down the door in the Grand Rapids office and attack the person who was in that office that had nothing to do with UI.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Estlund Olson acknowledges. “We clearly are trying to get to everybody as quickly as we can.”
I talked with Estlund Olson about everything from snail mail that’s being sent into the agency and how that’s being handled, to the UIA removing the "seeking work waiver."
You can watch the full 17-minute interview below: