Madam Governor: Fix the unemployment system.

April 8, 2020

Rep. Jack O’Malley

Madam Governor: Fix the unemployment system.

By state Rep. Jack O’Malley of Lake Ann

People across Michigan have had their livelihoods upended by the coronavirus outbreak and ensuing executive orders that have brought our state to a standstill.

Through a two-week stretch from late March to early April, more people in our state filed for unemployment than all of last year.

But there are thousands more who can’t get through an overwhelmed system to sign up for unemployment benefits, and it has led to questions about the viability and functionality of our Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA).

The UIA’s website is utterly broken. Calling in has been no better. Instances have arisen where people are put on hold for hours and then eventually disconnected. Hardworking people who now find themselves out of work are waking up in the dead of night to try and call in, thinking their chances of getting through to someone will be greater.

These are people who need to pay bills, meet overhead costs, stay in their homes and put food on the table. Struggling to apply for vital benefits only heaps additional anxiety on to an already stressful time.

I have been supportive of the governor’s efforts overall during this public health emergency. The ongoing stay at home order was made with the recommendations of top medical professionals studying this pandemic and national experts. Last I checked, I’m neither.

But there are problems and serious questions related to how people are going to stay afloat while they continue to stay away from work – and those concerns need to be answered and remedied to the best extent possible. The UIA’s implementation in the face of increased demand has gone poorly. It raises the legitimate question of why it wasn’t better thought-out executively when positive coronavirus cases reached our country’s shores and a potential shutdown was in the cards. Doubling and tripling staff when the system is already overloaded is a reactive measure, not a proactive one.

Instead of devoting time to fix this urgent problem, the governor has complained that the agency has been underfunded. This is a counterproductive and politically charged claim that doesn’t put people first. The Michigan Legislature provided the full dollar amount the governor requested and recommended for the UIA in the current budget year. For the budget year set to begin in October, the governor is asking for over $1 million less than the current year in line-by-line comparisons. In non-governmental speak – that’s a cut, and it came from her office.

The truth is, we need hard work now to get this right – not hindsight – for hardworking people who have had their lives interrupted through no fault of their own. We need more leadership to help our unemployed and stagnant business sector get by. We need the administration to develop a real plan to move forward out of this crisis, so we don’t see a replay of our current UIA debacle across an even larger scale. People in northern Michigan and across the state are depending on it – and they can’t afford to stay on hold.

Rep. Jack O’Malley, of Lake Ann, is in his first term in the Michigan House serving residents in the 101st District, which includes Leelanau, Benzie, Manistee and Mason counties.

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