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Michigan system for filing unemployment claims is overwhelmed, but keep trying, state officials say

MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo logo MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo 3/25/2020 By Julie Mack, mlive.com

Dawn Parker was laid off this week from her job as volunteer coordinator for the Clinton-Gratiot Habitat for Humanity, a casualty of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of non-essential businesses.

Since Monday, Parker said she’s tried dozens of times to file a claim for Michigan unemployment insurance benefits, to no avail. The online application process isn’t working and she can’t get through by phone, either.

“I have been trying every way I can think, at various times of day and night, to get into the system," said Parker, a 54-year-old Ovid resident.

When Parker finally was able to access the online system, she got a message that there was an issue requiring her to call the Michigan Unemployment Agency.

She’s called the agency “more times than I can count,” Parker said, but the line is either busy or she gets a message that because of heavy call volumes, the agency can’t take her call.

With tens of thousands of people laid off in the past two weeks because of the coronavirus outbreak, a system that normally handles 5,000 claims a week has been overwhelmed, state officials acknowledge.

To make matters worse, Michigan Works! offices -- where people normally could file an unemployment claim in person -- are only open by appointment because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to apply for Michigan unemployment benefits during coronavirus crisis

That means people must file online or by phone. But reports are rampant that people can’t access either.

“I’ve talked to six people in the past week, all who say the system is near crashed right now,” said Tony Paris, an employment lawyer with the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, a nonprofit based in Detroit. “The computer system itself is incapable of handling the number of folks who at have a right to at least know whether they’re eligible” for benefits.

A total of 108,710 unemployment insurance claims were filed in Michigan last week compared to a normal average of around 5,000 claims, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

State officials are urging patience, saying they’re shifting resources to address the problems with filing a claim. They’re also advising people to use the website between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., when it is least busy, and to look at online information vs. calling the agency to get their questions answered.

“Workers are encouraged to apply online at Michigan.gov/UIA or over the phone at (866) 500-0017, but due to the tremendous call volume, certain callers may receive a busy signal,” said a UIA press release.

“The UIA is working hard and fast to handle the influx of applications for unemployment benefits as we deal with the COVID-19 crisis. While an unprecedented number of calls and clicks has challenged the system, particularly during peak hours, we want to assure Michiganders that the system is providing emergency financial relief,” UIA Director Steve Gray said in the press release.

The agency is “shifting as many resources as possible to handle the increase in applications and is exploring further solutions to help Michiganders get the assistance they need as soon as possible," the agency said.

The agency notes that the online application system is available 24/7, and the best time to access the system is between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.,

People filing a claim can expected “longer load times,” the press release said. “It may take several minutes for a page to load at this time. Users are asked to be patient and not click more than once to reload a page.”

Applicants with questions can also access information on the website Michigan.gov/UIA, including frequently asked questions about the process and current challenges due to COVID-19. Checking the website for answers may help alleviate pressure on the phone line. A downloadable handout on the filing process can be found here.

The access issues are contributing to the stress of Michiganders who are suddenly finding themselves without a job.

Mary Kastl, of Alma, was laid off from her job as a quality inspector at auto parts supplier Ventra in Ionia last week. Then, the bills started coming in.

"A lot of us work on paycheck to paycheck," she said.

There's still one coming for her because of how the pay periods are staggered. She got on the phone with her auto insurer and mortgage company to come up with a plan. And she went to apply for unemployment insurance, a benefit she says she's lucky to have as a full-time worker.

She started trying to apply on Monday, with no luck.

“That phone is like, nobody can get through on the phone. It’s like the phone is off the hook,” Kastl said.

She went the online route and got through at an off-peak time, 3 a.m., with the help of a friend. At the part where she had to get an authentication code sent to her cell phone, there was another holdup -- it took hours to arrive. Finally, on Wednesday, she got through and put an application in.

To other people applying, she said, “they’re not alone. You’ve got to keep the faith and keep trying.”

Read all of MLive’s coverage on the coronavirus at mlive.com/coronavirus.

Additional information is available at Michigan.gov/Coronavirus and CDC.gov/Coronavirus.

CORONAVIRUS PREVENTION TIPS

In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus. Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible. Carry hand sanitizer with you, and use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home ( door handles, faucets, countertops ) and when you go into places like stores.

MLive reporter Emily Lawler contributed to this report.

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©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.

Visit MLive.com, Walker, Mich. at www.mlive.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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