LANSING — Michigan, whose inundated unemployment system saw 134,000 new filings last week, reported progress Thursday in processing claims and getting money out the door during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state has seen nearly 1.2 million initial applications over five weeks — the equivalent of 25% unemployment — though not all of those people will qualify for benefits. More than $1.3 billion has gone to 820,000 individuals. Another 200,000 claims likely will be certified for payment in the next few days, said Jeff Donofrio, director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.
He said Michigan was among the first states to include an extra $600 a week in checks and to provide benefits to newly eligible self-employed and gig workers under the federal coronavirus rescue package. About 17% of the state’s workforce is now receiving unemployment aid, the largest proportion in the country.
“We’ve thrown everything we can at this. We’ve got this commitment to getting as many people through the system as possible,” Donofrio said.
People who lost jobs have been frustrated because the crush of applicants has at times overwhelmed the Unemployment Insurance Agency’s website and phone system. The state has added computer servers, more than quadrupled call center staff and trained third-party partners to help.
Donofrio said while Michigan is processing many claims and sending checks as quickly as possible, it is a “small comfort” to people who encounter issues and need personal attention to resolve issues.
“Even though it’s a very small percentage of the number of people who apply, it’s still a very big number of individuals who need one-on-one help,” he said, saying “tens of thousands” of people are in the queue.
Common issues — like an employer challenging a claim because the employee quit and was not laid off or the need to check for identity theft — are happening on a larger scale, Donofrio said. Also, newly trained staff or third-party groups brought on to help with the deluge of claims have had to elevate about half of their calls to more experienced staffers to deal with complex account issues — at least in these early weeks.
The state has shut down an online chat function for the rest of this week so additional staff can review claims and disburse payments.
“We’re very sensitive to the fact that people are very frustrated in this period of time when you have a health crisis and an economic crisis,” Donofrio said. “We are committed to making sure they get their benefits, and we’re not going to rest until they do.”