Target 8: Unemployment phone line frustration

Unemployment Agency file photo

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Thousands of jobless people are making millions of calls, trying to get help negotiating the Michigan unemployment system, but they most often get a recorded message that tells them that “due to heavy call volume, we are unable to take your call as our agents are helping previous callers.”

They’re told to call again later.  And they do. Again and again and again.

During one week in early January, Michigan residents placed 1.7 million calls to the help line. Some 13,000 calls actually got through.

Because people call repeatedly in an effort to get through, no one knows exactly how many people made those 1.7 million calls.

“It’s very frustrating,” Misty Lepley said.

Lepley lives in Ionia and kept a log of recent attempts to get through.

“I called on Monday at 8:11, 8:22, 8:24, 1:06, 3:42 and 4:19,” she said.

Lepley finally got through to an agent at 8 a.m. on the third day of trying.

“At least fifteen tries,” said John Dougherty, whose job making solar cells went away.  “It just wouldn’t let me go through. It just kept kicking me out.”

That’s why Target 8 found Dougherty outside the Unemployment Insurance Agency’s Plainfield Avenue Problem Resolution Center.  It’s where people go when they can’t get through on the phone.

Dougherty had taken a number and was waiting for it to be called.

“Almost three hours, three hours of waiting,” he said.

That’s the other problem. Three or four hour waits at the unemployment offices are not unusual. Some days they close the doors at 1 p.m. because it will take until they close at 4 p.m. to handle those already in line.

Rich Miller is a seasonal worker who had been jobless for over a month without an unemployment check when Target 8 talked to him two weeks ago.

Miller said it was his ninth visit to the problem resolution office to try to straighten out a paperwork problem.

“I gotta take care of my family,” he said. “So I’ll stay here no matter how long it takes. I gotta get my money.”

“Waiting three and four hours is not something we should expect a customer to do,” said Stephanie Comai, who oversees the unemployment agency in her role as the deputy director of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. “That’s asking too much of our customers.”

As for the people who can’t get through on the phone, Comai said she sympathized with them.

“They are in a really tough place,” she said.

“I want our customers to get a higher level of service,” she said.  “We strive to really improve.”

Comai said the phone is not the best way for people to get help. She recommended that people set up an electronic account with the UIA and ask their questions online.

“We respond very quickly to those,” Comai said.

Comai said the staff at the problem resolution office is now asking those standing in line to leave their phone numbers so an agent can call them back at a specific day and time.

When unemployment rose dramatically in 2008, the unemployment agency was overwhelmed and the state hired more people to handle the extra volume.

But in 2012, as jobless numbers improved, the state got rid of 400 of them. Target 8 asked Comai if that was a good idea in retrospect.

“We have to live within our budget,” Comai said. “The federal government funds the unemployment administration, and we have to live with the budget.”

But why couldn’t the state government put up some money to increase the staff, Target 8 asked.

“Well, we’d have to cut services elsewhere,” Comai replied. “I mean, there’s only ever so much money.”

Still, the state government is currently experiencing a nearly $1 billion budget surplus. The governor and legislature are debating what to do with it. So why not spend some of it on improving service to jobless people?

“I would direct you to a number of other places in state government where people believe they need more money,” Comai replied.

In other words, it’s not likely to happen.

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