Liza Estlund Olson, the acting director for Michigan's unemployment system. Photo via the State of Michigan.
Liza Estlund Olson, the acting director for Michigan's unemployment system.

Fixing Michigan’s unemployment system while the future of pandemic relief is uncertain is a tall order, but Liza Estlund Olson hopes to rise to the occasion.

LANSING, Mich.—When Stephen Gray, the former director of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency, resigned in November, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the change in leadership would allow the agency to seek a different way forward at a time when it has been stressed well beyond its breaking point by the pandemic coronavirus’ knock-on effects on the economy.

The new acting head of the agency, Liza Estlund Olson, is taking Whitmer at her word and helming that different approach .

Estlund Olson has led the agency on an interim basis before, in 2007, and has spent the past two years as the director of the Office of the State Employer. Since her time managing UIA, though, the agency has gone through years of neglect and fallen well behind its ability to handle a crisis like the novel coronavirus, thanks to disinvestments made under the leadership of former Gov. Rick Snyder. 

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This means Estlund Olson comes into office with a backlog of almost 100,000 cases of out-of-work Michiganders in dire need of assistance. Further, because of UIA’s attempt to become nimble enough to handle the flood of claims during the pandemic, the previous director created a new problem for the UIA. The agency last month released an independent report showing how, faced with an unprecedented deluge of claims during the coronavirus outbreak in the spring, it made policy, technological, and organizational changes that increased the system’s exposure to fraud.

UIA reacted to this fraud with sweeping suspensions of pay, freezing the support relied upon by hundreds of thousands of Michigan families in the summer. When Gray resigned, thousands of Michiganders were still waiting on their critical support. And UIA attempts to verify people’s identities have been arduous and taken excessively long, according to out-of-work Michiganders like Mallory Colby and Sarah Alexander. Olson has to balance the concerns of residents like Colby and Alexander with what she estimates to be hundreds of millions of dollars being claimed fraudulently. 

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“We understand there are claimants that have been caught up in that process who are legitimate claimants who need and deserve their benefits,” Estlund Olson told the Republican-led Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic. “It’s just this constant balancing act between not paying out to people who aren’t supposed to be paid and paying those people timely who are supposed to get paid.”

Estlund Olson said the state will refer cases to federal, state, and local authorities for criminal prosecution and seek to recoup the money.

But separating the fraud from the genuine need isn’t the only strain out-of-work Michiganders are feeling, and UIA is struggling to adapt to an ever-changing legal landscape alongside its recipients. 

Michiganders are also concerned about the end of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, presently scheduled to expire the day after Christmas. New pandemic assistance proposals remain up in the air despite the virus being at its most virulent and dangerous point yet. 

Not knowing what will be in a new stimulus, or if one will come at all, the agency is still working to improve its adaptability. 

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The unemployment agency has nearly 3,000 people helping claimants, up from 650 before the virus outbreak. This fall, it developed a new phone-based appointment system and increased appointment slots by 20%. And it has improved its website and thoroughly trained its staff to resolve complex claims, Estlund Olson said.

“All of these improvements have positioned the agency to better deal with large fluctuations of demand if necessary,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.