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Editorial: Get the unemployment offices open

The Detroit News  |  The Detroit News

It’s appalling that almost one year after the state of Michigan was shut down to address COVID-19 that residents struggling with their unemployment assistance still can’t make an in-person appointment. 

That needs to change right away. 

There is no good reason the state’s 12 unemployment branch offices aren’t allowing individuals to come by. It would be one thing if the Unemployment Insurance Agency were well-run and easy to access by phone or internet.

But that is not the case, as evidenced by large numbers of filers still unable to connect with an employee to help them clear up a problem. Too many struggling Michiganians are unfairly being denied benefits because of ineptness at the agency. 

More: Michigan unemployment offices remain closed for nearly a year. People are frustrated

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Businesses were shuttered thanks to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown orders, so the state has an extra responsibility to ensure it’s meeting the needs of the jobless. 

Other state offices figured out how to handle in-person encounters months ago. For instance, after closing branch offices at the start of the pandemic, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson reopened them via appointment last June. It’s still not easy to make appointments at those offices, but it’s possible. 

If the secretary of state can do this, so can the unemployment agency.

Republican lawmakers have called for the reopening of offices since last summer, in response to the frustrations they've heard from constituents. 

Last fall, the UIA started offering “phone appointments,” which can be made online. This seemed like progress, since before it was nearly impossible to reach anyone via phone — or even leave a message. 

Yet if you go on the UIA site and try to make an appointment, you’ll quickly find those 15-minute slots are solidly booked a week in advance. 

This message pops up: “The calendar is currently full for the next 7 calendar days. New appointments become available throughout the day exactly 7 calendar days in advance (for example, on a Tuesday morning appointments for the following Tuesday morning become available). Please continue to check for additional availability.”

That’s not good enough, considering the number of unemployed citizens needing help. In the restaurant sector alone, jobs are down by 200,000 from a year ago. Whitmer’s restrictions have hit the hospitality industry especially hard, and continue to do so. 

In addition to the necessity of accessing financial benefits, which are funded through unemployment taxes on all businesses, many individuals have been falsely accused of fraud by the UIA — or are the victim of identity theft and had benefits taken out in their name.

These are serious and frustrating situations. The state needs to make sure people have the proper avenues to solve their problems. Opening the unemployment offices is a start.