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Michigan unemployment agency chief grilled by lawmakers

Director of the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency, Liza Estlund Olsen defends her agency’s handling of the surge in unemployment claims during the COVID-19 crisis to the House Oversight Committee.
Director of the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency, Liza Estlund Olsen defends her agency’s handling of the surge in unemployment claims during the COVID-19 crisis to the House Oversight Committee.

The acting director of Michigan’s unemployment agency told a House committee the system was overwhelmed by a surge in claims as COVID-19 idled workers, as well as short-staffing, and an antiquated computer system.

But Liza Estlund Olson was defiant in the face of questions from Republican lawmakers regarding her management of the Michigan Unemployment Agency.

“For those calling for my removal, this is not an easy job,” she told the House Oversight Committee. “If it were the previous administration had eight years and seven UI directors who could have made changes a long time ago.”

Estlund Olson said since the beginning of the pandemic the UIA has processed 26 times its normal workload. At the same time, she said, there were more attempts at fraud that needed to be investigated while the agency was shorthanded.

She also said the agency will be seeking bids soon for proposals to modernize the agency’s computer system, which would also require an appropriation from the Legislature.

“If it’s a failure that we didn’t move faster, OK, then we will work on trying to move faster,” she said. “But we have done yeoman’s work to get this program up and running and working and paying folks.”

Republicans on the committee appeared unimpressed.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of responsibility taken,” said Representative Steve Johnson, the committee chair. “It seems like there’s a lot of blame being placed.”

At times. Estlund Olson tried to excuse herself from the witness chair to bring in her agency’s usual liaison with the Legislature. Johnson refused and insisted she remain to take questions on her own.

Johnson and other Republicans complained about a breakdown in communications between the agency and the Legislature. Johnson said it’s lawmakers’ offices taking angry phone calls from constituents worried that they’re not getting payments in time or that they may be forced to return benefits they’ve already received.

“That’s where so many of us are frustrated is there is zero transparency,” he said. “There is zero willingness from the agency to be open with the Legislature and how we can work with you to help our constituents. We hear from our constituents on this daily, but we’re not even in a position to help them, it feels like.”

Johnson said he plans to continue holding hearings in the future.