It’s hard to imagine the leaders at the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency could find a way to create another self-inflicted wound, but somehow they did.
And, frankly, we probably shouldn’t expect better from a state agency that has a decades-long track record of missteps, a hall of fame of sorts that memorializes some of the worst bureaucratic bumbling imaginable.
The agency’s most recent fumble adds to a long line of what appear to be efforts to place blame for officials’ deficiencies and mistakes on the people the UIA was created to help.
It’s further confirmation that the Michigan UIA’s worst problems aren’t technological, they’re cultural — an apparent systemic inability to quickly disclose, take responsibility for and fix mistakes.
We’re talking about errors that often injure our neighbors who are doing their darndest to raise themselves from a low point in life — the loss of a job, of income, of stability. We’re also talking about the agency that was created to help folks bridge those valleys and find solid footing on the other side.
The COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout from measures enacted to slow the virus’ spread sent millions of Michiganders into unemployment in a matter of weeks in mid-2020. The throngs of newly-unemployed who scrambled to register for benefits — money that would ensure they could continue paying bills during a near shutdown of our economy — ran into a bureaucratic brick wall. They found an agency utterly unprepared for and unable to address such a broad catastrophe.
Worse, the months that followed have been marked by misstep after misstep and career bureaucrats who seem fixated on blaming the unemployed for their mistakes.
Take for example the latest UIA debacle unfolding.
UIA officials disclosed during the past few months that they incorrectly interpreted federal guidelines for enhanced unemployment benefits and included four incorrect criteria in their registration system that may have incorrectly allowed about 500,000 Michiganders to receive benefits. Turns out that disclosure came several months after the feds notified agency leaders of the potential problem in January.
When they finally disclosed the problem, agency leaders said they would require those half million people, many who still are working through the financial fallout from being unemployed for a period, to re-register for those already paid benefits. Some could see those benefits rescinded even though in 2020 they followed all the rules and had registered for and received benefits the agency said they were entitled to.
Thankfully, under pressure from just about everyone in the state who lives with a conscience and common sense — including this editorial board — UIA leaders later shifted their plans and announced they would refrain from clawing back payments made as a result of their flub.
For at least a moment, it appeared the institutional culture at UIA may have begun to find its moral compass.
Then came the letters.
A short time later, we began receiving word from some of those 500,000 people who qualified for payments under the four categories the agency has since invalidated. Cabinet makers, day care workers, contractors — people whose livelihoods were halted temporarily in the shutdown.
Many received a flurry of letters in August notifying them that they had incorrectly received benefits, that the payments they already received now are “denied” and that they “owe restitution”.
For many, those letters — a mélange of bureaucratic jabbering — go on in precise detail to list the amount the agency overpaid and note that despite the recipient violating a state law in receiving the payments, the agency is gracefully not collecting.
Those screeds are unnecessarily frightening to nearly half a million of our neighbors. Worse, they cast as some sort of law breakers the people who correctly navigated the agency’s god-awful registration system, answered a list of qualification questions honestly and received unemployment aid.
The letters are simply the latest in a string of mishandled crises at the agency that span decades — don’t forget this is the same UIA that gutted innocent, vulnerable people’s finances after it installed an automated fraud detection system that ran amok while bureaucrats ignored clearly erroneous findings. That same system still is at work at UIA today.
In the best case, a well-working UIA would follow a strong moral compass that guides it to help those in need while vigorously pushing back against the hucksters and fraudsters who would take advantage of its altruism.
Unfortunately the Michigan UIA seems to have misplaced or broken its compass. Or maybe it simply never had one.