On March 16, when Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered the state's schools to close at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in Michigan, Tarissa King was faced with a choice: She could bring her 10-year-old daughter with her to the Wendy's restaurant where she worked, or quit her job to take care of her.
To get to work, King takes the bus. Bringing her daughter along for a ride on public transportation seemed like an unnecessary risk of catching COVID-19, as was bringing her to work. And hiring a babysitter, King says, wasn't an option. "You don't know who's infected and who's not," she says.
So King chose to quit. She spoke with her manager, who was understanding of her situation and promised she could return to her job when the crisis was over. King applied for help from the Unemployment Insurance Agency that day, and appeared to be approved.
But then, days later, while certifying with MARVIN, Michigan's Automated Response Voice Interactive Network, King hit her first snag. "I didn't really know how to answer the questions because it's kind of tricky. Like, the first question is 'Are you able to work,'" she says. "There should be an option on there for people who are not attending work because of COVID. But they don't give you that option, so it kind of puts you in a bind." Other messages mentioned Michigan's requirement for unemployment applicants to search for a new job, which didn't make any sense considering the state's economy ground to a near halt due to the pandemic.
Then, two weeks later, King encountered another head-scratcher: She got a message telling her to log in to her account online. But when she did, she got an error message saying her social security number was associated with a different account. She requested tech support, which told her to call a number.
King has never been able to get through. Sometimes a recording would say the number wasn't in service. Other times the call would get disconnected. Sometimes it would say they couldn't answer her call due to high call volume, and to try again later. One time, a voice warned her that the wait times could be two hours or longer; after waiting for hours, the line got disconnected.
This went on for weeks. One day, King even tried to call before the office opened at 8 a.m. to see if she could get in a queue. No luck.
"I don't really think nobody's working, if you ask me," she says, exasperated.
The last time King tried to call, there was a new automatic message, saying that the only people who should be calling are those who need to file a new claim. Anyone else, it said, should refer to the website ... the website King can't access because of her tech support issue.
In the meantime, King got her $1,200 emergency stimulus check from the federal government, which helps. For now, anyway.
"Bills still got to get paid regardless at the end of the day," she says. "Something needs to be done."
King says she started reaching out to local media, and even sent a letter to Gov. Whitmer's office. So far, nobody else has responded to her.
King's daughter is busy now: Detroit's school district announced a $23 million plan to get laptop computers and internet access to 50,000 students, so they can continue to learn from home. But for King, figuring out how to get unemployment money has become a full-time job.
"I watch the news every day, and I'm not hearing them talk about ... these problems," she says. "I'm trying to find out answers not just for myself, but for everybody."
Brenna Welch, a baker at the Detroit restaurant Rose's Fine Food, was also laid off early in the crisis, on March 15, and filed a claim that evening.
While restaurants are considered an essential service and allowed to stay open, Rose's is a farm-to-table sit-down brunch spot. Owner Molly Mitchell cleaned out the fridge and delivered groceries and prepared meals to her staff, and has since pivoted to limited offerings, including baked goods and a bread and wine club. But Welch says she couldn't continue to work anyway because it's impossible to be less than six feet away from someone in the kitchen, and her immune system is considered to be compromised because she's eight-and-a-half weeks' pregnant.
"There was a meme that circulated when this all first started, and it was just like, 'How many of you felt like you finally had your life on track right before quarantine?'" Welch says. She and her husband, who also works in the hospitality industry, had both scored two of the best jobs they've ever had in their entire careers when they decided to have a baby. "We were both doing really well, and then all of a sudden quarantine happens, and we signed up for unemployment. We were like, 'OK, it's going to be a little bit of a pay cut, but we can do it.'"
But like King, Welch found herself locked out of her account. Eventually, she reached tech support, which was able to unlock it, but then the system said she never filed a claim.
Finally, she got a message saying someone would personally call her the next day. Welch says that they did in fact call, but were unable to resolve the issue.
"Now we're like, what's going to come first: unemployment or the baby?" Welch says. Unlike King, she still hasn't received her federal stimulus check.
In the meantime, she's requested extensions for her car loan and car insurance. Her Highland Park landlord has been understanding, and told her she and her husband can just pay what they can when they can.
Welch has stopped trying to contact the agency, but like King, navigating unemployment has become a full-time job for her, as well.
"I don't want to be the culprit of the problem that I'm upset about," she says. "I try not to check every single day. I try to do it every other day, and on the days that I'm not checking, I'm doing research, or finding out new contacts, or reaching out to my friends and seeing if they've gotten anything. But it's definitely on my mind every day." She has also tried to email Gov. Whitmer, as well as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, to no avail.
Welch says she worries that prolonged lack of financial assistance could force many employers and employees back to work before it's safe to do so. "It's almost like we feel like, OK, are we going to end up just getting starved back to work?" she says.
Stacy Bower, a substitute teacher in Kalamazoo County, echoes King's and Welch's concerns. After the school district's staffing company sent a notice about the school closures, she applied. But her claim was flagged for a "non-monetary issue." The system asked her to fill out a form, but she can't find it. Attempted calls resulted in waiting for four hours without getting through.
Since Bower recently moved to the Kalamazoo area, she didn't have a local bank set up yet. She requested for her unemployment payments to come in a debit card, which arrived in the mail, but it's empty. She has not received her federal stimulus check, and has three boys.
"The only thing that's getting us through is the school is delivering meals twice a week," she says.
The coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, late last year, has hit Michigan particularly hard — far harder than its neighboring Midwestern states — likely via Detroit Metro Airport, due to the auto industry's connections to Asia. It has hit southeast Michigan the hardest, its spread and impact exacerbated by income and racial disparities.
That industry likely brought the virus to Michigan early on, where it spread undetected. But that dominant industry has also helped make the virus's economic impact higher here, too, with regions of the state that still rely on manufacturing getting hit harder than places with diversified economies, and employees that can more easily work from home.
"I've heard people describe it as when the nation coughs, Michigan gets a cold," says Steve Gray, director of the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency.
Michigan has seen the nation's third-highest surges in unemployment claims relative to the size of the state's workforce, behind only Hawaii and Kentucky, according to CNBC. So far, the state has seen a staggering 1,261,921 claims for unemployment benefits, or nearly a quarter of the state's workforce. Nationwide, nearly 26.5 million people have filed for unemployment since the start of the crisis — more than the 22.4 million jobs added to the U.S. economy since the Great Recession.
More than a month into the coronavirus crisis, the state of Michigan says it has provided $1.66 billion in unemployment benefits to 1,018,315 workers. For perspective, during the Great Recession about a decade ago, the agency saw some 400,000 claims over the course of many months, with a peak unemployment rate of 14.4 percent. (This time, it saw nearly that many file in the first week of April alone.) Back then, the agency had staffed up to more than 1,200 people to accommodate the surge. But last year, Michigan was seeing its lowest number of claims, and the agency was staffed accordingly, Gray says, with some 650 workers.
"If you figured we needed 1,300 staff to handle 400,000 active claims at a time, and we're at 1.2 million, arguably we need three times that amount to handle it," he says. "You just can't possibly staff up that quickly."
In normal times, Michigan's unemployment is paid from a state trust fund where employers pay quarterly taxes into the fund based on the number of people that they have working for them. Before the crisis, the trust fund was up to $4.6 billion, making it the third-highest unemployment fund in the country. At the start of the Great Recession, the fund only had $330 million.
Tony D. Paris, lead attorney at the Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice, says that Michigan's unemployment agency had issues before the coronavirus crisis hit.
"Although there's no question that we are in unprecedented times when it comes to unemployment insurance demand, unfortunately, prior administrations' decision to lay off hundreds of claims examiners, even before we'd recovered from the Great Recession, in favor of an expensive yet error-prone computer system also makes any adaptation to meet the need to quickly processing claims that much more difficult," Paris says. "This system is not only not very user-friendly, it rigidly and automatically decides many claims without human review in a way that seems like it's programmed to err on the side of denial of benefits — or at least to cause so much frustration that people lose their patience and give up, which now many increasingly don't have the luxury of doing."
Paris is referring to MiDAS, or the Michigan Data Automated System (yes, it is named after a famously cursed king), which wrongly accused approximately 40,000 Michigan residents of defrauding the Unemployment Insurance Agency from 2013 to 2015 and caused the agency to erroneously garnish wages and intercept federal tax returns based. (Many of the victims have since been refunded.)
Gray acknowledges that access issues were a problem before the crisis. A new phone system had been in the works, and he says the agency got wait times down to 10 minutes or less, with 6,000 to 7,000 calls a week. Until the coronavirus hit, anyway, and the agency was receiving 160,000 calls a day. He estimates with its current manpower, they can handle 14,000 calls a day. The agency extended its call center hours and added hundreds of customer-facing staff. As new claim numbers have begun to drop and parts of the economy are reopening, he says they're seeing under 20,000 claims a day. That will help them address the backlog of claims, he says.
Still, the demand is daunting. The agency made it so the phone line is only for people who need to file new claims and don't have internet access, and they disabled the chat function on the site.
"The best way for people to communicate with us is to send a web notice," he says. "But people should know it's going to be several days before they hear back from us."
When told that everyone Metro Times spoke with has been waiting weeks for a response, and that people like King have gone for more than a month without pay, Gray is remorseful.
"That's an impossible situation, and she and the others who are in her boat are what keeps me up at night," Gray says. "She's clearly eligible, at least it seems."
Gray couldn't say how many backlogged cases the system had, but says he's hopeful that people can start getting paid this week. As the agency addresses the number of claims that have been flagged with errors that need technical support, he thinks that will lessen the number of people flooding the system with calls. His advice for filers is not to check the website more than once a day, because it's only updated every 24 hours anyway, and to check for any alerts or other notifications requiring attention.
"All I can say is we haven't forgotten about you," he says. "We know that you're there. We keep a list every day of the cases that are still being held. And we're trying to work through all of them as fast as we can."
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