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House committee questions UIA on delayed unemployment payments, offices reopening, and fraud

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Posted at 7:12 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 19:12:58-05

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent payments, it’s losing workers left and right, and still having issues answering all calls.

The agency’s interim director, Liza Estlund Olson, testified in front of a house committee this morning and overall there seemed to be more questions than answers after it was all over.

UNEMPLOYMENT BACKLOG

Thousands remain on unemployment in Michigan. Emails into FOX 17 still show issues with the phones, claimants’ calls are dropping, and their online chat doesn’t work.

Even their state reps cannot solve their problems.

“But unless this governor gets off her throne and allows these people to work or you guys get these people help, they are not going to be open,” said state representative Michele Hoitenga of Manton. “I am infuriated that the governor and you are not constant contact trying to figure out how to help these people.”

HUSH MONEY PAYMENTS

Thursday morning an oversight committee questioned the agency’s interim director, starting with the so-called $85,000 “hush money” paid to former director Steve Gray when he resigned.

“It’s a contractual issue, with HR and I’m not going to comment,” said Estlund Olson.

“So you won’t comment if you would take that money or not?” questioned state representative Pat Outman.

“I’m not in that situation so I’m not going to comment,” said the UIA director.

GOVERNOR COMMUNICATIONS

Just like hundreds of thousands of claimants, politicians could not even get straight answers.

State representative Steve Johnson asked, “how often do you talk with the governor?”

“When I need to,” said Estlund Olson.

“And how often is that,” asked Johnson. “I would say you would need to a lot because there’s probably a lot of issues going on. We’re just trying to figure out what is the communication going on. So how often?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, when I need to,” said Estlund Olson.

“When was the last time you met with the governor?” Johnson asked again.

“Um, maybe a month ago,” she said.

BY THE NUMBERS

Since March 15th, 2020, the agency’s paid out nearly $31 billion dollars.

It’s handling 23,000 calls, chats and appointments a day. More than 10,000 claims were filed last week alone.

“Every claimant in managerial review has been contacted has been contacted to provide additional information to process their claim,” said Estlund Olson.

There are nearly half a million active claims with no issues at all.

More than 10,000 who are waiting on id verification but may be fraud claims And close to 30,000 claims remain unpaid.

FOX 17 INVOLVEMENT

“I think FOX 17 has done a tremendous job when it comes to the unemployment issue,” said representative Johnson.

He chaired the committee and his office reached out to me before the hearing to see what questions I might asked the director since I’ve never been granted an interview with her.

UIA FRUSTRATION

Johnson too, is frustrated with the UIA.

“They showed they have a lot of issues over there that they need to fix and they need to fix them soon,” he said. “We have a lot of people hurting right now and the unemployment agency just isn’t coming through for them.”

UIA SITES

The UIA sites around the state are still shut down. Lawmakers can force them to open, but the governor could veto that.

“Even the Secretary of State’s office if open up for appointments but the unemployment agency isn’t,” Johnson said. “And they really provided no good reason for it. Well, they say it’s because of COVID. Well, their brothers and sisters in the SOS are open they’re finding a way to deal with it.”

FRAUDULENT CLAIMS

The UIA would not answer specifically how much it’s paid out in fraudulent claims, only saying the number is in the hundreds of millions.

Criminals have become incredibly brazen.

“On your left if you can see that, that’s a picture of John Krasinski, Jim from The Office that has been photoshopped onto that ID, which is an indication of fraud,” Estlund Olson said while showing ID documents.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

The agency has 1,100 to 1,400 people answering phones. But the turnover is high and the director says some don’t have thick enough skin to be yelled at all the time.

Representative Johnson and others just want more results for those who are struggling.

“If they would just open their offices up so many of these issues would be resolved overnight,” he said.

TASK FORCE INVESTIGATION

The oversight committee is now looking to put together a special task force to investigate the UIA.

WATCH: Full hearing with UIA director

READ: Presentation from UIA director Liza Estlund Olson