Nearly a million Michiganders have filed for unemployment, and tens of thousands of them are still in line in the state’s unemployment system waiting on checks they’re not sure are ever going to come.
Steve Gray, the director of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency, says one over-riding attribute is going to be necessary while navigating the system.
In a 30-minute Q&A with the Detroit News Wednesday, Gray, who became UIA director in June, said the agency’s focus right now is solving delays in cases and getting those people paid.
“The line is tens of thousands of names long …. We’re taking people out of the line and making payments in big chunks,” Gray said. “People are going to start coming out of the line in big chunks in the next several days.”
Gray pointed to an unemployment system that wasn’t ready to handle the sheer volume of claims caused by layoffs and job losses during the coronavirus crisis. The system, he said, was designed more to have staffers handle claims in person, with less on-line capability than turned out to be necessary.
As state officials have pointed out multiple times in the last six weeks, the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, under which the UIA falls, has been adding staff as quickly as possible to keep up with demand.
“The technology hasn’t been what’s causing the delay,” Gray said. “We’ve had a couple of times where we’ve had huge volumes of people at one time. Our system is designed to have an individual person take a look at a case and solve whatever problem there is.
“There wasn’t ever enough staff to be able to handle the call volume,” Gray added. “What’s really holding us back right now, and holding that last group of people (who haven’t gotten) paid yet, is the need to have someone review the cases. We’ve only got so many people to do that.”
The department is solving that problem, Gray said, pointing out they’ve added hundreds of people from other departments, and even vendors, to help handle the call volume. He said they added about 100 people in the last week, and hope to add another 100 in the next week.
The problem, Gray said, is that individual claims have to be adjudicated, and it takes people to do that. The six-week training period is partially causing the slow-down of claims processing.
‘Bringing on people to do that is where we hit the snag,” Gray acknowledged. “We’ve been focused on figuring out what those cases are … and we’ve moved all of our resources to solving the cases of those people who haven’t been paid yet.”
Claimants who haven’t heard about their claims told The Detroit News about multiple phone calls that have gone unanswered, a cause for frustration for workers trying to get their benefits.
Gray said 95% of claims are filed online, but there is a population that “for whatever reason” can’t file that way. When people who are waiting to hear something epeatedly call the office, he said, it slows everything down.
“What we’ve done is bringing on additional outside help … But we’re trying to reserve the phones for people who need to file a new claim,” Gray said. “There’s a small group of people … can’t file online, and the phones are reserved for them.
“We’ve taken the resources we had focused originally on the phone and put them to claims adjudication … for the people who haven’t been paid yet. If their case is held, we’re aware of it and we’re working on it. That’s our number one priority right now, resolving those cases where people haven’t been paid.”
Gray made several other points:
- Workers who are still waiting on their state claims can still file for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Even if a state claim is denied, Gray said, most PUA claims are likely to go through.
“Typically people denied on their state claim (are) given the opportunity to apply for pandemic unemployment assistance,” he said. “You can be paid the pandemic assistance while you’re waiting on the appeal to your state claim.”
- The department is finding new staffers from a variety of places. About 100 new workers are being added this week, and another 100 in the “next week or two.” Some 200 workers were brought in from state contractors, and then another 200 were added “just to work on our phone issues.” Internal staffers with no real training who aren’t qualified to do case reviews have been recruited to help with phones.
“We’ve brought on a lot of people,” Gray said. “The bottleneck right now is … I know people want to have their calls answered, but what we really need to do is review those cases and remove the holds on those cases, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
- Gray apologized for the state of the system, areas of which he acknowledged “aren’t as user-friendly as they could be.”
“We’re building that plane as we go, we’re fixing it as we go to make it more user-friendly, and we’re adding hundreds of thousands of new passengers as we go,” he said. “It’s a complicated process, but we’re working on it … seven days a week. We’re going to get people paid.”
Gray said he expects “big chunks” of people to get their money in the next few days and come out of the queue.
“I don’t want to make any promises, because if we’re not able to get it done, people are going to be upset,” Gray said. “We’re focused on you guys, we’re going to get to it. You’re going to get back-dated once we get you approved, for those people who haven’t been able to get paid yet. We’re doing everything … to get you paid as quickly as possible.”