LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Called to testify before the Michigan House Oversight Committee Thursday, the leader of the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency discussed the agency’s need for a more robust operating system.
Acting Director Liza Estlund Olson began by giving a brief presentation about what she called successes that her staff saw while responding to a massive jump in claims during the pandemic.
“Since the pandemic, we have processed more than 5.3 million unemployment claims. That’s 26 times the normal workload. Each week, we take more than 26,000 calls from claimants. Since April of this year, we have answered 2.4 million calls,” Olson said.
Legislators on the Republican-led committee then began a slew of questions about why some people never received their unemployment payments and why others received tax bills for money they never claimed. They asked the director to explain the issues happening with customer service.
Olson said while the UIA were slowed by multiple changes from the federal government, it was also working with a system that was ill-equipped to handle the volume of claims received. Olson said the UIA has partnered with the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget to explore what other options are available and which would be most efficient for their use.
Some lawmakers, including Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, who chairs the committee, questioned the UIA’s transparency throughout the pandemic. Johnson mentioned several cases in which he said his constituents notified him and other members of the Legislature of systemic issues with unemployment before officials with the UIA did.
“You have to admit there’s been some failures in the agency. In your opinion, what are those failures and what steps are you taking to fix those?” Johnson asked.
“We had to make decisions on what are the priorities to get money out of the door. We have done that to the best of our ability with the tools that we have,” Olson replied. “If we have not done it as fast and as efficiently as we needed to, then we need to work toward making those programs more efficient. However, we have paid 99% of the people who applied and were eligible.”
Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Okemos, asked Olson if there was a way the Legislature could better assist the UIA. Olson told the committee that her office is need of additional workers to handle the increased number of claims. She says it has been awaiting approval from the Legislature for continued use of 500 workers since March.
Olson also spoke about nearly 690,000 letters that went to Michiganders asking them to repay unemployment money they received for suspicion of fraud. The lawmakers said several of their constituents never requested said funds. They say others legitimately requested the money and were approved but after the criteria changed, they received letters saying their approval was a mistake.
Olson said her office has gone through those claims and has since sent out 263,000 waivers notifying people that they do not have to pay back money they received. She says there are about 100,000 more waivers that must be sent out.
Legislators also asked Olson about the number of fraudulent claims. Olson could not provide a specific dollar figure but says her office stopped payment on about 500,000 fraudulent claims. She also later said the system has been able to detect 99% of fraudulent claims.
The UIA says 39 people have been indicted on fraud charges in the state. Olson said there are still thousands more that are in the pipeline.
“I think we got some good information here today but I’m still disappointed,” Johnson said before adjourning the meeting. “I don’t think there’s been a lot of responsibility taken. It seems there’s a lot of blame being placed. Whether it’s blaming the federal government, blaming the Legislature, or blaming funding, I’m not seeing a leader take responsibility.”