(The Center Square) – Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) Director Steve Gray told lawmakers Thursday the UIA is making changes to reduce a claims backlog and laid out plans to improve customer service and prevent fraud.
Since March 15, the UIA has received as many claims – almost 2.6 million – as it did in the nearly six previous years combined.
The April weekly highs of unemployment claims were 388,000 after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shuttered most of the economy to curb COVID-19, dwarfing the 2009 Great Recession’s weekly claim high of about 77,000.
The UIA is aiming to optimize its system through a chatbot as well as streamline paperwork to improve customer service and reduce call volume by 70 percent as the state prepares to give out additional unemployment benefits.
A forensic audit team is reviewing cases after two former UIA workers were charged with committing $3 million in fraud, a federal offense.
Gray said in one of those cases a new manager didn’t follow fraud prevention procedures.
The UIA is redoubling training efforts to prevent further fraud.
“What it underscores for me is that the temptation can be overpowering, and it’s on us to trust but verify and monitor the work of our team for suspicious activity,” Gray said.
There are 42,000 unpaid claimants, 28,000 who still need their identity verified and are likely imposters, and 14,000 are in the adjudication process and need one-on-one assistance.
About 98 percent of claimants have been paid.
About 200,000 cases are in non-monetary backlog – meaning there was possible unreported income, refusal to work, or another problem, and the UIA must review whether claimants were eligible or not.
Gray laid out plans to clarify certification questions and possibly allow claimants to change questions’ answers without calling a UIA employee.
“You’ve got legitimate people out there that just made a mistake, especially since they’re new to unemployment … and some of the answers aren’t written the best way,” Gray said.
Gray said the UIA plans to shift an additional 250 people into adjudication cases this month, for a total of 590, who will be able to make “significant headway” on the backlog.
Republican lawmakers criticized Gray for not reopening regional unemployment offices, something the UIA said in June they were possibly working on.
Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, named several constituents who’ve been waiting three months and longer for payments.
“I know I couldn’t survive 24 weeks without a paycheck,” O’Malley said.
Gray said they had to protect their customers and staff, and the UIA was more efficient working remotely.
Michigan will begin processing the $300 federal jobless benefit next week, retroactive to Aug. 1, which will last for at least three weeks, Gray said.
President Donald Trump offered the benefit through an executive order after Congress failed to pass a new COVID-19 stimulus bill.
The UIA estimated 910,000 Michiganders would benefit through the program.