Michigan’s unemployment insurance chief resigns

Michigan’s unemployment insurance chief resigns

The head of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency stepped down as the governor has struggled to provide timely benefits to out-of-work Michiganders.

Steve Gray, the director of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency, or UIA, resigned from his post, state officials announced Nov. 5. The former legal aid attorney was appointed in June 2019 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and originally tasked with overhauling the agency’s after a notorious track record incorrectly flagging thousands of filers for fraud, among other issues regarding customer service and access to benefits.

The UIA faced renewed stress and backlogs as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, overwhelming the unemployment benefits system with nearly 400,000 weekly claims in April – when Michigan’s unemployment rate reached as high as 24%.

Gray faced scrutiny and calls to resign as the agency attempted to deal with the waves of jobless claims and backlog due to slow processing times. He appeared to testify before a joint select committee on the COVID-19 pandemic three times prior to his resignation.

“On more than one occasion, the agency told our committee they had fixed these issues after hearing about them, but we kept hearing from people in our communities that they had not been fixed,” state Rep. Matt Hall, R-Emmett Township, told the Detroit Free Press. “It seemed the agency never had a grasp on the true scope of the problem.”

The state jobless claims system simultaneously faced criminal attempts at exploiting the unemployment benefit program through imposter claims, leading to increased fraud prevention and investigation that significantly slowed the processing of claims during the pandemic and delayed access to much needed benefits for many.

Between March 15 and Oct. 31, over 2.9 million Michiganders applied for unemployment, receiving nearly $25.6 billion in benefits.

“I recognize that the timing of this change is less than perfect, especially for an agency that has seen its share of leadership change in the last 10 years,” Gray wrote in a letter to his staff. “But I have complete confidence in my replacement’s experience and the commitment and skill of our team to get us through this change and come out stronger on the other side.”

Liza Estlund Olson takes over as acting director of the UIA effective immediately, a position she previously held with the agency in 2007-08.

In comments made to the Detroit Free Press, Whitmer called Gray’s departure a “good thing” and an opportunity to take the agency in a new direction. “I think that it’s an opportunity, certainly, and I don’t know that there is more that I can add right now,” Whitmer said.

Weeks earlier, Whitmer signed a bipartisan bill extending unemployment benefits to the end of the year. The bill closely resembles one of Whitmer’s executive orders that was tossed in the October Michigan Supreme Court ruling.

The new law provides for 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits and increases the amount of business able to take part in the state’s “Work Share” program. Combined with federal unemployment programs, Michigan workers can receive up to 59 weeks of unemployment pay.

However, the governor has not provided further details on the new direction she’d like the agency to go or a roadmap for improving the state’s handling of jobless claims as COVID-19 cases see a resurgence.

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