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What the Michigan unemployment director says needs to be done to fix the system

What the Michigan unemployment director says needs to be done to fix the system
Posted at 5:48 PM, May 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-05 17:48:43-04

(WXYZ) — As we work our way through the crisis, The Rebound is here to help you, bringing you the experts, resources, understanding and guidance you need to bounce back.

We're focusing on the state's unemployment office – struggling to process over a million claims. It's not the first time the state agency has faced great difficulty.

UIA Director Steve Gray said COVID-19 has helped expose cracks in the unemployment system, the same system he exposed as a watchdog several years ago.

"I think you bringing to light that there are lots of innocent people on the West Side of the state that are being impacted by this is really important. It makes it a statewide issue. it makes it harder for legislators all over the state to ignore," Gray said to 7 Action News Reporter Darren Cunningham back in June 2015, when Darren was in Grand Rapids.

At the time, he led the Unemployment Insurance Clinic through the University of Michigan Law School. He and his students helped clients with unemployment benefit issues for free.

"Over the last few years, especially starting in 2013, there was a very large uptick in the number of people that were being accused of fraud by the agency," Gray added in 2015.

As history would have it, in 2013, the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency used a computer system to determine who was signing up for benefits fraudulently. A computer operating without human oversight. He said they realized most of the people were completely innocent.

Gray wrote a detailed letter to the U.S. Department of Labor, asking for federal intervention.

Over the next few years – among many things – the UIA returned $20 million and laws changed as victims and advocates spoke out.

In June 2019, Gray became the director of the very agency he worked to hold accountable as an outsider.

"I'm up at night. I'm losing sleep because I know that there are people out there that are eligible and still haven't been paid but their case needs to be reviewed," he said.

More than a million Michiganders have filed for unemployment benefits, overwhelming the agency and agencies across the country. Systems have crashed, people are getting locked out online, and some tell 7 Action News they've waited for than six weeks for a check.

"What parallels do you draw between then and now with what you're seeing under COVID, if any?" Darren asked.

"You know, when we put a new computer system in place in 2013, it was sort of set up by leadership at the time with a certain mindset," Gray responded.

A mindset, he says, seemed too focused on not paying people who weren't eligible.

"There's a flip side to that which is, we need to also make sure we are paying people who are eligible," he said.

Gray said he's concerned that a historically restrictive system may lead to some benefits ending prematurely at a time people need them most.

"When we get through this on the other side, I'm hoping that state leadership and everybody else will say, 'Hey, you know what? We need to make sure that we've got an unemployment system that gets to people that need it.'"

Gray said his first priority is getting people paid – then working through the benefit issues and makign the online process more user friendly.