LANSING, Mich. -- The FOX 17 Problem Solvers sat down with two state lawmakers, a Republican and a Democrat, who said if there's a problem with the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA), then they're willing to take a closer look.
"If I got a letter that said I owed $23,000, I'd have a heart attack," said Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids.
That was his reaction to just one of the fines issued by the UIA. But it doesn’t stop there. Problem Solvers has seen people fined more than $100,000, with some being penalized as much as four times what they ever collected in benefits.
Our previous reports delved into many of the discrepancies in addition to fraud allegations, apparent systemic computer flaws, and hefty fines. Many people tell us they’ve been denied a simple hearing with the state to defend themselves. And if they do get a hearing, they are told they don’t qualify for free state-appointed help.
"In fairness, I think your reporting on this and FOX 17's reporting has really brought a lot of these issues that, frankly, I was unaware of," Dillon said. "The idea that if you are accused of fraud and somehow you are unable to access the assistance of somebody who is paid to advocate on behalf of people who have disputes with Unemployment I think is extremely unfair. That should be what those advocates are set up to do."
Issues range from a mistakes made by a new computer system to people being unable to get answers and the help they need.
Dillon said the system as a whole needs a look.
"And we need to talk to the administration and find out what they're going to do to address this problem and, if it takes a legislative fix to be able to help people who've been burned by this system, I would be very open to that," Dillon said. "We've made it tougher for people in this state in the last four years to get the benefits that they historically had."
While the governor's office and other state agencies aren't willing to discuss these issues with FOX 17 Problem Solvers because of pending litigation, it appears that leadership is following our news coverage.
FOX 17 Problem Solvers filed a public records request for emails. In early May, in response to our story on Joshua Coster of Zeeland, Stephanie Comai, director of the Talent Investment told the director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency's director "It does not make a lot of sense to me to penalize people who actually never collected any benefits."
Problem Solvers reported that UIA took Coster's $2,700 tax refund over a discrepancy in his unemployment benefits application, even though he never received a dime in benefits. Coster said he never had a fair chance to fight it. Problem Solvers helped him get his money back.
"Based on what you've been learning, it's definitely triggered my interest," Rep. Ken Yonker, R-Caledonia, told FOX 17.
Yonker said his office hasn't taken any action against the UIA because it hasn't received many calls from people. Problem Solvers are hearing this from several lawmakers. Yonker agrees with Dillon about possibly questioning the agency and said a deeper investigation is an option.
"[Lawmakers] can start communicating the issue and start watching it and be able to put pressure on," Yonker explained, "because ultimately our power is in the budget. If a department doesn't perform then the strongest arm we have is pull funding. Of course no one likes that."
Dillon said the agency is doing its job by cracking down on fraud. "But the way we are doing it now seems to be totally skewed towards hurting people who have either collected benefits for a short period of time and are now being told that they should have done that," ," Dillon said, "or making it just more difficult for the average person to get through a tough time."
"That should not be the role of the state," Dillon added. "It should in fact be the exact opposite of that."
Each time FOX 17 Problem Solvers reaches out to the governor's office and UIA for an interview, we're told no one can comment on the issues because of pending federal litigation.
The attorney who filed the lawsuit said the state attorney general's office recently requested a 60-day extension to formally respond to the lawsuit.
The suit is not considered a class action lawsuit, but there are seven plaintiffs in the case. The Sugar Law Center is an institutional plaintiff in the case and is taking phone calls at 313-993-4505.
If you’re facing fines with the Unemployment Insurance Agency and feel you’ve done nothing wrong, you can contact both your state lawmakers and the governor’s office.
You can contact them in writing online, and you can call them. The links below will narrow your search when you enter your address. You can also file a complaint with the attorney general’s office.