Our nation’s leaders have long been engaged in a deadlock due to disagreements over the new coronavirus federal aid package. America is at a juncture of crises and there is one critical solution: providing relief through ease of access to necessary assistance. If its legislature does not do something to this end for the improvement of unemployment conditions, Michigan will likely see a deadly and costly mental health catastrophe substantially worsened by a rapid increase in homelessness. 

The agonizing uncertainty of waiting for unemployment benefits or other forms of government assistance to process is an issue affecting the American people on an unprecedented scale.

Without timely access to unemployment benefits, many Michigan residents will be evicted, go hungry and lose access to critical care. With people waiting for five months or longer to receive any unemployment assistance at all — even after being approved — bills will not be paid. Resulting evictions along with other life-shattering changes caused by financial hardships could have repercussions for years to come. 

This week, I spoke to labor lawyer and University of Michigan Clinical Assistant Professor of Law Rachael Kohl. She was able to explain why Michigan is falling short of adequate emergency provisions for its residents. Perhaps more importantly, she was able to shed light on what our state government can do, now and in the future, to remedy these shortcomings.

Kohl currently serves as clinical director of the Workers’ Rights law clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. Her colleagues and the law students under her supervision provide pro bono assistance to Michigan residents from across the state — they have helped many residents fight to receive adequate and timely funding. For some, these emergency funds represent a critical lifeline for staying afloat in an unprecedented crisis — for others, a depiction of the money as a lifeline is terrifyingly literal. Michigan residents are facing eviction and food shortages. There has been a devastating rise in the number of overdoses and suicides with the looming threat of more mental and physical health crises. Under our current system, health insurance is not ubiquitously available to pay for potentially life-saving treatment. For many residents, their health insurance is tied to employment. 

Kohl detailed how many of these Michigan residents not only navigated a system they may have never encountered before but have also been forced to navigate a system ill-equipped for unemployment numbers that would have seemed inconceivable only a year ago. As she described Michigan’s current unemployment crisis and how it stacks up against similar scenarios playing out around the country, she provided a comprehensive picture of precarious and unforgiving realities unemployed Michiganders can face.

“It’s been an overwhelming need for unemployment in the state,” she said. “That need is only exacerbated by the fact that the unemployment insurance agency had to try to figure out a way to process more claims, in the last seven months, than they’ve had to process in combination (over the) past six or seven years.”

Kohl further stated that the way unemployment insurance is funded piles even more bureaucratic procedures on top of already urgent and dire conditions shaped by a global pandemic. “The way that unemployment insurance is funded is based on the last quarter’s unemployment rate, and so the federal government didn’t give states more money to increase its ability to hire more people and train more people until well into the actual need,” she said.

This particular mention of federal funding sounded like a harbinger of more explanations to come, concerning federal impediments to funding. Trumpian and national right-to-work politics have hindered workers’ ability to seek legal recourse to statutes. But the reasons some Michigan residents have been suspended — in limbo and without relief — extend much further back than the overwhelming, dystopian climate of a Trump presidency.

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Zach, a junior in LSA studying economics whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, said he applied for unemployment back in May, when he would have started his summer lifeguarding job had it not evaporated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He received the first round of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds relatively quickly and reported encountering a relatively short two-and-a-half week delay before receiving another round of emergency funding, which he applied for at the beginning of August to purchase the school supplies he needed. However, he described encountering consistent barriers to clear communication. He said he experienced high levels of anxiety while waiting for other funds to come in because he did not have the possibility or safety net of another income. 

In July, after Zach fixed what he described as a “stupid error” over the phone — the worker he spoke to told him Zach had switched his first and last name — the same worker told Zach he’d be receiving his funds shortly. But Zach said he is still stuck on the “pending payment” status, according to his online unemployment portal, and has not received any funds. He continues to call each week and says that most times he is not able to get through to anyone at all — his calls will often go to an automated voicemail box and the agency’s computer will hang up.

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During our conversation, Kohl outlined the litany of ways our Michigan legislature has historically failed to update state labor statutes that govern the distribution of unemployment funds in the state, which have in turn harmed workers. Moreover, she declared the statutes were encoded in a notoriously unreliable computer system that has harmed Michigan’s workers in the past. She provided an abundance of statistical evidence supporting the claims that Michigan’s state statutes frequently undermine the well-being of the workers who need it most, including the students who may depend on a second income stemming from work that no longer exists because of the pandemic.

“One of the biggest issues through Michigan for unemployment … I’d say it’s a two-fold issue. The first issue is the Michigan statute … is incredibly restrictive,” Kohl emphasized. “It is one of the most restrictive state statutes governing unemployment out of any of the rest of the country. We are in the bottom, I’d say bottom five to bottom ten states for how many workers we actually cover and how well we cover them.” Kohl stated a failure to account for inflation plays a large role in Michigan’s unemployment statutes lagging far behind the rest of the states.

“We have one of the lowest weekly benefit amounts meaning the most you can get in the state is $362 per week,” she said. “… It used to be tied to inflation and then in 2002 it was removed from being tagged with inflation, so it’s just remained stagnant for almost twenty years. $362 in 2002 represented about 58% of the average weekly wage of the state, now it’s less than 35% of the average weekly wage of the state.” 

“Beyond that, … the statute’s also restrictive [in that] it cuts out part-time workers. We’re one of the only states that don’t cover part-time workers … We’re one of the only states again that doesn’t consider family care obligations as a non-disqualifying reason to leave a job,” she remarked, adding that in other states leaving a job for family care obligations or domestic violence related reasons are both considered to be good causes to quit. 

Kohl continued on to say that one of the more restrictive parts of the unemployment statute disqualifies one from receiving unemployment if they’ve quit any job within the same year. “In Michigan you will not get benefits because you quit your job in January even though it has nothing to do with why you’re unemployed and Michigan’s one of the only states that does this,” she added. 

Kohl suggested the Michigan legislature has failed to capitalize on multiple high-stakes opportunities to improve conditions for the unemployment claims process and provide safeguards protecting the welfare of Michigan’s workers and their loved ones. Specifically, she said, the state’s legislature had the opportunity to codify changes induced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders into the Michigan Integrated Data Automated Systems (MiDAS) forever. These changes would have made it so prior job separation and family obligations wouldn’t be disqualifying moving forward.

“There are lots of pretty basic things that, like I said, other states are already doing, and Michigan is just really far behind,” she clarified. “So, the hold-up for claimants in this state is less on the agency and more on the legislature.” Kohl indicated reliance on technology for adjudication of claims is not only potentially dehumanizing but has backfired horribly in the past. 

Kohl explained that Michigan uses MiDAS — an outdated computer system designed and implemented in 2013 — that was meant to automatically adjudicate all claims with no human oversight. After two years, it was found that MiDAS had issued 60,000 fraudulent decisions, 90% of which were not actually fraud. This error rate is extremely problematic in Michigan, where any finding of fraud disqualifies you from future government assistance.

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The crises we face — and the forms the toll will take in the long-run — are multiple. We may not be able to ascertain what the ongoing impacts of these crises will be right now, but they are projected to continue along a catastrophic trajectory. While there are measures the state can take, the Michigan legislature alone has the power to take them. I am calling on members of the Michigan legislature to come together from across the aisle and provide timely unemployment aid to an expanded range of Michigan residents. They can use as their prototype actions that states like California have taken to avoid costly, labor-intensive manual review. For example, Michigan could make use of an automated phone system developed by an outside company. The new system would easily supplant the outdated, ineffective MiDAS computer system. The Michigan legislature could also work together to codify new bylaws under the statute to expand unemployment coverage to include more workers, as Kohl suggested.

A country full of traumatized and decimated families after the election will not be served well by care which desperately attempts to bandage what has already fallen apart. Suicide, addiction and overdose prevention, in actuality, look like affordable housing and the ability to pay for it, available and plentiful food, a living wage and equal opportunity. While capitalism is falling down on them the unemployed deserve to eat, live safely and attend school, reaching diligently toward an uncertain future without the added strain of needless, Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

 

Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at hsierra@umich.edu.

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