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UIA director says agency "dramatically improving" phone communication, answers questions from lawmakers

"Our system does have strengths, but it has considerable weakness."

LANSING, Mich. — $14.3 billion have been paid in benefits to 2.1 million workers since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan. 

The economic impact of the virus hit Michigan's economy, and the UIA saw a record number of claims. 

"I’m committed to very quickly, dramatically improving the access people have over the phones," said Steve Gray, director of Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA).

Gray spoke to Michigan's Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic Wednesday. He said currently, 94.5% of eligible claims have been paid, or will once they certify. That still leaves 5.5% unpaid, and many people wondering what is happening to their benefits. 

RELATED: Michigan to soon resolve jobless claims filed before May

They now have more than 2,200 staff helping claimants. That's up from the 130 employees at the beginning of the crisis. Gray said they continue to add employees to help get people paid quickly and answer questions. 

Gray said there has been a few major challenges in dealing with the surge in claims.

For one, Gray admits their computer system has been an obstacle. He said in 2013, the state contracted with an outside vendor for the system, not designed for the workload of the crisis. 

"It's not user friendly," said Gray, "First, it puts onus on the claimant to contact the agency when certain issues come up, rather than clearly communicating what the issue is, and the actions the claimant could take to move their case to resolution."

Gray said there has been fraud issues as well. The agency will be moving more staff to phones next week, after previously shifting them to verifying identification due to fraud.

RELATED: Lawmakers: Open Mich. unemployment offices, give $1K loans

"This criminal attack was intentionally timed to take advantage of the immense emergency need and resulting record benefits being paid," said Gray, "the large expansion in federal unemployed benefits and over tax state systems. This environment has created perfect storm for criminal activity.

State lawmakers on the committee also asked a number of questions they often hear from constituents. One of the major being about reopening unemployment offices. 

"There are people out there that can’t get through," said Senator Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, "they just want to talk to someone. And I know you know how stressed people are, so why can’t you be open for appointments?"

Gray said opening offices needs to be done with consideration for health and safety. 

"We do have plans to open the offices," said Gray, "We're working with the Office of State Employer [and others]. We have to ensure that it's safe for claimants and workers."

He said they are working on an appointment system, and referenced Kentucky opening offices and seeing 10-hour wait times in lines. 

"With all due respect director," said LaSata, "what are we waiting for? This has been going on a long time. 10-hour lines? That shows the need. What can be done tomorrow? 

RELATED: 1.5 million more laid-off workers seek US unemployment benefits

Gray spoke to the productivity of employees working from home, and being able to utilize their time to take more calls. Not every lawmaker was on board with reopening the offices. 

"I get what you're saying about the productivity is more if a person is at home and they feel safe," said Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, "I think a lot of my colleagues don’t believe corona exists."

Other lawmakers brought up a general frustration from constituents about communication from the agency. 

"What we see in the response in the press, is 'We're working on it,'" said Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, "Right? 'We're working on a plan,' Then a week later, you come here and have a lot of details about why you didn't do it. Why don't you communicate that to the press a week ago?"

Gray responded he agrees the agency needs to do a better job communicating to the public about what's going on accessing the system. 

"I think we need to start reporting our contact center information out on a regular basis," said Gray, "So you can see the number of calls coming in, the number of calls we're able to handle, and see if we're meeting our goal of dramatically improving our ability for people to access us or talk to us."

Gray said the agency will not rest until all eligible Michiganders get their benefits. 

"We've worked hard to develop workarounds," said Gray, "with more than 150 specific program changes so far. But, it's not enough. The frustration, anxiety, and anger it's creating for claimants, the legislature and UIA staff requires a rethink of the approach to data and benefits and usability that's built into the system."

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