The dining section is closed off at a small restaurant (AP Photo/David Goldman) out-of-work-AP-scaled
The dining section is closed off at a small restaurant (AP Photo/David Goldman)

With unemployment numbers surging, Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency is struggling to keep pace. Here’s how to navigate the system during this crisis.

MICHIGAN — Beth Graham is a graphic designer, which would be a prime candidate for a work-from-home job in the age of social distancing. But the commercial she works for specialized in handling design for events. With events prohibited by executive order, she found herself out of a job. 

“Since a lot of our work is event-based or for restaurants they had to cut staff way back,” Graham told the Gander.

Graham’s partner, who works for the same printer, is in the same boat. The two have savings they can draw from and don’t have kids to support, so are confident in their ability to make ends meet in the short-term.

Like a record-setting 3.28 million people did last week, Graham tried to file for unemployment. But she ran into problems. The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency’s (UIA) website where Michiganders can file their claim was glitchy and unresponsive. 

“It wanted me to create an account to be able to log in. Each step took several minutes to load and then it kept saying my username was already taken (unlikely) or phone number was already in use (how?) and I couldn’t get it to complete,” Graham explained.”I think [this] probably came from the buttons where you select what method you want to be contacted by, because selecting one would cause the whole form to reload which took again several minutes.”

The Gander has received multiple reports of similar problems, both with the online and telephone unemployment services. In fact, Michigan unemployment claims for jobless benefits rose 21-fold last week to a record 129,000. UIA said people were getting a busy signal and its website was slowing down at times. The agency said applying online during off-peak hours, 8 p.m. to 8 a.m, will expedite the process and the deadline to apply has been extended from 14 to 28 days.

The State of Michigan’s Unemployment Benefits During COVID-19

The number of applications shattered the previous high of 77,000 in January 2009, during the Great Recession, which hit the state especially hard. Applications for the week ending March 21 rose more than 23-fold from the week before, according to a federal report, and represent 3% of Michigan’s total workers who are eligible for jobless benefits.

With layoffs mounting, a major expansion of unemployment benefits was included in an economic relief bill nearing final approval in Congress. It would supply 13 weeks of additional benefits beyond the 26 weeks Michigan offers.

The state caps benefits at 20 weeks, but Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this month ordered that people who apply before April 15 qualify for 26 weeks.

The federal legislation also would expand who is eligible to include those who exhaust their state benefits or self-employed workers who would not usually qualify — such as small business owners, freelancers and independent contractors.

“Clearly we’re dealing now with a hurricane that’s impacting the entire country, and we need an unemployment system that responds to that hurricane,” said Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan.

One provision in the bill would, for four months, provide an extra $600 a week on top of the average $325 that Michigan provides.

Unemployment Set to Outpace the Great Recession

As the number of people attempting to use these services skyrockets beyond anything America’s seen before, it seems the infrastructure backing the unemployment system is struggling to keep up. Overburdened infrastructure has become something of a theme of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the event that has caused such a drastic rise in unemployment. 

The nearly 3.3 million Americans applying for unemployment last week shattered the previous record, being almost five times the previous record of 695,000 set in 1982. Courier reports the unemployment rate may reach 13% by May, surpassing even the heights of the Great Recession of 2008. This devastating rise in unemployment has also been devastatingly swift — the unemployment rate in February was only 3.5%.

That all isn’t relevant, argues Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

“You know, to be honest with you, I just think these numbers right now are not relevant, and you know whether they’re bigger or smaller in the short term, you know, I mean obviously, there are people who have jobless claims, and again the good thing about this bill is the president is protecting those people,” Mnuchin said.

But Congress seems to think it is relevant. In fact, it has created a sense of urgency toward action on a national level, with Congress rapidly (for Congress) working out a “coronavirus relief bill” which would act as an economic stimulus during this sharp shock to American pocketbooks. But Washington remains divided about extending unemployment insurance to that record-setting population of displaced workers. 

Senate Republicans held a press conference expressing concerns about whether Americans would want to go back to work if they received expanded unemployment. The package passed Thursday provides a significant boost to unemployment, but Graham reassured the hesitant Republican senators. 

“I really like my job and I want to get back to it. Same for my partner,” she said. “I’ve only been off since Tuesday and I’m actually surprised by how anxious I am to get back to it.”

How to File For Unemployment in Michigan 

Congress’ action, for the first time, expands unemployment protections to the gig economy. Additionally, Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) has expanded reasons for unemployment to include being sick or quarantined as a result of the coronavirus, or have responsibilities to provide care because of the pandemic including those with unexpected childcare responsibilities after school closures or those tending to sick family members. Coverage has also been expanded to certain self-employed workers. 

With record-breaking applications and the largest number of covered Michiganders ever, it’s important to know the process. UIA advises not attempting to apply at peak hours (instead try from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m). A claim can be filed by phone by calling 1-866-500-0017 and pressing 1 to inquire about and to file a claim. It can also be filed online at http://michigan.gov/uia which UIA encourages. 

To file a claim, you’ll need your social security number; 18 months of employment information; driver’s license, state-issued identification or non-citizen alien registration; address; phone number and date of birth. 

You’ll also need to answer some questions every two weeks either online or by phone. Payments are given through either direct deposit or prepaid debit card, and typically post two or three business days after answering those questions. Normal requirements that you are actively searching for work aren’t being enforced during the coronavirus crisis. 

Don’t be deterred if the system is unresponsive — the filing deadline has been extended to 28 days.

Graham has been using the time waiting to file her claim to keep in touch with family she can only check on through video chats, and take care of pets she’s fostering through Livonia’s WAG animal rescue.

“We are fostering some cats right now for WAG animal rescue which makes being stuck at home a lot more fun,” she told Gander. “It’s a good time to adopt a rescue pet or foster!”

She’ll try filing again tonight, after peak hours.