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Incompetence reigns at unemployment agency

The state’s response to COVID-19 has lifted the veil of incompetence on numerous government offices, but none so much as the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency.

The jobless claims spike following the pandemic overwhelmed the office. It never caught up with demand and Michigan residents suffered, including those who were put out of work by shutdown orders from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The latest show of mismanagement is truly indefensible.

Nearly 650,000 individuals who filed for unemployment benefits are now being told by the state that they may have to repay that money. And it’s not because they did anything wrong.

This is the UIA’s screw-up, and the onus is on it to fix it.

The federal government had offered pandemic unemployment assistance to a broader population of workers than would typically qualify for benefits, including part-time, self-employed and gig workers.

The criteria the state used to determine whether these individuals qualified for the help didn’t mesh with federal guidelines.

The UIA gave applicants for this pandemic unemployment assistance four reasons to choose from, but now the agency has sent out letters to these recipients saying the state must reevaluate eligibility for the suddenly “non-qualifying” reasons.

Notified individuals only have a few weeks to reply. For those who no longer meet the revamped criteria, the state is not offering any solutions, other than they will have to repay the money.

It’s unclear why it took agency officials this long to figure out its qualifications didn’t align with the federal standards.

But it’s very clear this is not the way to handle the situation.

The planned approach is unfair and amounts to retroactively changing the law.

This is a complete waste of time for the agency, which has already struggled to fulfill the most basic duties, including ensuring unemployed workers received their checks and communicating in a timely manner. Even getting offices open for minimal in-person appointments has proven a monumental task.

Rather than go after claimants who did nothing wrong, the agency should focus its attention on rooting out actual fraudulent claims. The state doesn’t have a firm number on the fraud, but one audit estimated the amount stolen is in the hundreds of millions.

Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, chairs the House Oversight Committee, and has sought to hold the agency accountable. He announced Wednesday he would launch an investigation.

“If the state made the mistake, the people shouldn’t have to pay for it,” Johnson said. “The state should have to pay for it.”

And it appears the state has leeway to determine whether to waive repayment in these cases.

According to Rachael Kohl, director of the workers rights legal clinic at Michigan United, federal guidance suggests waivers ought to be granted if claimants were paid in error through no fault of their own.

With billions of federal COVID relief dollars flowing into the state, some of that funding should be diverted to fixing the problem.

The thousands of people who truthfully filed for assistance and checked boxes the state gave them shouldn’t have to pay back anything.

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