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Michigan advocacy group calls on state unemployment agency to fix four key issues

Posted at 8:26 PM, May 14, 2020

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A Michigan advocacy group is asking the state to make changes to its unemployment system to help more people in the long run.

Since March 15th, more than 1.7 million people have filed for unemployment in Michigan. The UIA says 92% of them have been paid while some did not qualify.

That leaves more than 130,000 qualified applicants still looking for money and trying to get through for help.

"We will need that stronger unemployment insurance system, long after the pandemic has passed," said Peter Ruark.

He's a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy.

The non-partisan institute promotes racial equality, economic security, and health and well-being for Michiganders by helping change laws.

“What this pandemic has done," said Ruark, "is it has shone a bright light on everything that’s wrong with Michigan’s unemployment insurance system.”

That's why he wrote this report and sent it out to lawmakers.

It lays out four key changes the state should make to the UIA, from restoring the 26-week maximum benefit now at 20, to increasing the weekly amount that people are paid.

Something that has not gone up, he says, since 2002.

“People have to have that safety net if they lose their jobs through no fault of their own and they need to be able to pay the bills and put food on the table, while they look for work," said Ruark.

Michigan Representative Terry Sabo of Muskegon is also fighting for the change.

He wrote a bill asking the state to increase the weekly maximum benefit amount from $362 to $542.

“Obviously we know that nowhere’s near what they were for a lot of things in 2002," said Sabo, "and so that weekly benefit amount right now comes to $18,800 a year.”

Sabo submitted his bill in September but says the issue is now even more important with the pandemic.

“I wrote a letter to the governor recently that was public and asking the governor to make this a priority for our workers who have been displaced from their jobs because of this pandemic," said Sabo.

That letter to the governor says his office is getting notifications from UIA that cases have been resolved when they haven't, and that people are not being treated fairly by a system that they depend on, brought on through no fault of their own.

Kim Murphy of Howard City is one of them.

"I got so frustrated with it and so upset and now I’m talking to you," she told FOX 17.

Several issues popped up with her claims from pending adjudication to filing a protest.

But still, no human being to help her.

"I’ve tried afternoon, evening, daytime, early morning, middle of the night. It just hangs up on you - it won’t even let you wait online," she said.

After emailing FOX 17, her nearly seven weeks of back pay is now in her account.

But she still feels for others who are waiting.

“I did everything my employer told me," she said. "I called both employers, nobody could help me.. there’s just no way to contact unemployment… so what are you supposed to do.”

On Wednesday, UIA Director Steve Gray address the Joint Select Committee.

“I want to ensure you, we will not rest until everyone entitled to benefits receives them," said Gray.

He says more people are now covered under the CARES Act, but it's still not enough.

“But emergency action is a band-aid on a program that needs reconstructive surgery. Now is the time for policy makers to take action that will help unemployed workers now and into the future. We need to work together," said Gray.

The state says it's paid out $5.6 billion in claims so far but more than 130,000 are still waiting.

As for the bill that Rep. Sabo submitted, there's no timetable on when that will be brought up again.