Unemployed and desperately seeking answers from the state unemployment agency by phone and the internet, Muskegon resident Rebecca Erb said the last thing she needed was the runaround.

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Erb left her last job in a meat packaging plant more than two years ago when her body couldn’t acclimate to the bone-freezing temperatures during an eight-hour shift. She struggled to get help from Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency, whose computer system continually booted her off the website.

“It kept going back and forth like a pingpong game,” she said.

Erb sought help from the University of Michigan’s Workers’ Rights Clinic, where law students assisted her in winning a hardship waiver case.

“They all were wonderful in calming my fears, were empathetic and were very good about explaining the whole process as well as keeping me updated about the case,” she said. “It was different not ever seeing anyone in person who worked on my case. Everything was handled online and over the phone.”

Residents throughout Michigan and nationwide have struggled to receive unemployment benefits during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Michigan’s unemployment levels jumped to 24 percent last winter — the highest rate since the Great Depression. The rate has dropped to 7 percent as more businesses, which closed following state orders, reopened or brought back employees.

The volume of claims filed with the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency peaked at 388,000 in a single week last spring, compared with 5,000 claims before the pandemic. Since last March, more than $26 billion in benefits have been paid to 2.2 million workers, or roughly 97 percent of potentially eligible claimants, the agency stated in a news release.

Many of the U-M clinic’s cases have involved UIA. Kohl described it as a “tightrope” situation — who should be covered by unemployment when going to certain jobs presents such scary health questions?

Meanwhile, in late fall, the UIA sent a report to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that documented the state’s efforts “to identify and respond to fraud risks regarding unemployment claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The historic demand for services was coupled with criminal attacks on unemployment systems nationwide. In addition, UIA had about 650 staff before the pandemic and now it’s jumped to nearly 3,000 helping claimants. The agency says it has made technology, policy and organizational changes to improve operations.

Still, frustration grew for months as unemployed residents sought to get questions answered by the state agency. With no resolution in sight, some turned to the U-M clinic for free legal help.

Five years of service representing clients

The clinic opened at the Law School in 2015 — five years after it operated as a nonprofit involving U-M and other Michigan schools to staff it. The Workers’ Rights Clinic, formerly the Unemployment Insurance Clinic, typically averages 15 calls per week from residents seeking help. Now, during the pandemic, the clinic gets 100 calls and emails daily with callers asking about unemployment eligibility and rule changes.

Rachael Kohl, who directs the U-M Workers' Rights Clinic, works with eight law students during the summer and more than 75 during the winter. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)
Rachael Kohl, who directs the U-M Workers’ Rights Clinic, works with eight law students during the summer and more than 75 during the winter. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

Rachael Kohl, who directs the clinic, works with eight law students during the summer and more than 75 during the winter.

The agency could deny an unemployment claim if someone does not work, but the Michigan Supreme Court has previously ruled that having to choose between one’s health and their job is not a reasonable choice, which could render the claimants entitled to benefits.

With the pandemic looming over the world, this ruling is now being applied to claimants whose work situation creates a legitimate fear for their safety during the pandemic. This is where the clinic helps by contacting the agency or representing clients in court.

The clinic has been successful in its efforts, winning about 90 percent of the cases it takes on. For cases that are lost, the clinic’s representatives may appeal the ruling depending on the merit and capacity involving other cases, Kohl said. The appeals occur at the administrative appellate commission, state circuit courts and to the Michigan Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.

“We have to have a fast turnaround so that people can get money in their pockets,” she said.

In some cases that the clinic wins, employers have appealed the court rulings. Those cases go to a three-judge administrative appeals court. If the decision is not supported by either party, it can be sent to the Michigan Circuit Court, Kohl said.

The clinic has been successful because it helps claimants navigate the confusing process and get them through a hearing with support. If claimants win at the hearing, they have access to their money. Regardless of winning, claimants have someone to turn to for help and guidance, and claimants appreciate having this support through a difficult time of their lives, Kohl said.

Fraud cases a problem for clients

One problem in Michigan has been residents wrongly accused of fraud, especially between 2013 and 2015. A UIA computer system was programmed to sift through claims to find any discrepancies and flag them for fraud. It found 60,000 discrepancies, but later — after a review of the system — determined no fraud occurred in 93 percent of them.

Today, Kohl said, the state’s response has been that the claimants are too late to appeal even if the state was wrong in determining the fraud in the first place. The state is still prosecuting these false fraud allegations and seizing people’s tax refunds, garnishing their wages, taking future UI benefits (even during COVID) and sending bills to claimants asking them to pay.

In Michigan, a person charged with fraud must repay the benefits, as well as four times the amount, plus interest. For example, if a person received $10,000, they have to pay back the original amount, an additional $40,000, plus interest that accrues to about 1 percent daily.

Sometimes problems occurred when people moved or the notices went to the wrong address, Kohl said. The agency would make a ruling on a case more than four years later and send the letter to the clients’ last address on file.

Many of the clinic’s clients never received these determinations, which contain no facts but only that they “intentionally misled or concealed information to receive benefits that you weren’t entitled to receive.”

It’s been tough for state residents to get access to the funds. Kohl said the Legislature has written the law so that only about 26 percent of jobless workers in Michigan can actually receive unemployment benefits.

“What the COVID-19 has really done is put a magnifying glass over the issues that Michigan’s unemployment system has,” Kohl said. “Having this clinic be watchdogs for what’s going on has been helpful for the state.”

Eni Mihilli, a U-M law student who works at the Workers' Rights Clinic, first learned of the clinic in 2014 when her father was laid off from work and had trouble getting unemployment benefits. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)
Eni Mihilli, a U-M law student who works at the Workers’ Rights Clinic, first learned of the clinic in 2014 when her father was laid off from work and had trouble getting unemployment benefits. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

Family’s case inspires student to join clinic

Eni Mihilli says her family was fortunate to get its case satisfactorily resolved. Her father had been laid off from his job and applied for benefits at UIA in 2014. When her parents didn’t receive word from the agency, they assumed the request had been denied. Later, they received a letter stating that he improperly received unemployment benefits and owed $3,000.

“For my parents, who lived paycheck to paycheck, this was a large amount of money,” Mihilli said, stating her father never received the money.

Eni, who was living in England as part of a study abroad program at the University of Sussex at the time, tried to assist her parents, but said the state unemployment agency was not helpful. She reached out to the clinic, where the staff worked on the case and subsequently had a hearing before an administrative law judge.

Eni’s parents won their case. The happy ending prompted her to enroll at U-M where she is now a law student and graduate student instructor and on the clinic staff.

“I wanted a career where I could have a more direct and positive impact on people’s lives,” she said. “I remembered what a huge difference the clinic made on my family’s life, and I wanted to be able to do that for people, too. And so here I am.”

What Eni likes about her experience was that regardless of clients winning or losing their cases, they appreciated having an advocate.

One client was Detroit resident Dana Hahn, who worked with student attorney Liz Rasch on her case. The agency alleged she owed thousands of dollars — an error that caused her sleepless nights and endless hours on hold waiting to speak to its representative to reverse the decision.

“When my case was denied, I was in a state of panic. I could not get ahold of anyone that could assist me from UIA. Having $6,000-plus hang over my head was so scary,” Hahn said.

“Would my credit score be affected? Would they garnish wages? Should I pay it back? Words can’t describe how alone and isolating it felt, in a time where (pandemic) isolation was already at its peak.”

Hahn, who is searching for a job, said Rasch helped her reach financial safety.

“I will forever be in debt to the clinic and the team of student lawyers and supervising attorneys that guided me through this difficult process,” she said.

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