Wentworth calls on Whitmer to fire state unemployment head

By: - August 26, 2021 11:43 am

House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) in Detroit on June 28, 2021 | Ken Coleman

Updated, 4:49 p.m., with comments from Whitmer’s office

As the deadline for workers to claim federal unemployment benefits is set to run out in 10 days on Sept. 4, Liza Estlund Olson, the acting director of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency, will testify before a state House panel. 

Olson agreed to appear before the Oversight Committee on Sept. 9 to discuss problems related to Michigan’s unemployment system during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

House Oversight Committee Chair Steve Johnson (R-Wayland) said the committee hopes to hear from Olson “on a number of issues related to Michigan’s unemployment system, especially since those issues have become more common in recent months.” 

Liza Estlund Olson

“The list of problems at the agency continues to get longer,” Johnson said. “People we represent continue to not receive an effective level of service. There have been calls for changes at UIA. It’s important to get answers and have a clear picture of what is going on at the agency.” 

On Thursday, House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) called on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to remove Olson, saying the Michigan UIA has failed Michiganders who are “still desperate for help”. 

“The stories I’ve heard from people in my community are absolutely heartbreaking, and I know we all know someone who shares the same struggles,” said Wentworth. “Far too many good people have been forced out of their jobs and left out to dry by their state government. They are all done waiting for UIA to figure it out. I’m done hearing all their excuses. The governor has to make a change and give Michigan families the lifeline they deserve.” 

Whitmer spokesperson Robert Leddy said, “The governor is staying focused on putting Michigan workers first and jumpstarting our economy.”

“It’s unfortunate that the Legislature is focused on lobbing partisan political attacks rather than partnering with the administration to pass legislation introduced by Democrats in the legislature, which would improve unemployment services for people who’ve lost a job through no fault of their own during a global pandemic.” Leddy said. 

Olson is testifying before the Oversight Committee after the UIA failed to notify about 690,000 people for six months who would be affected by the federal government rejecting four state-developed unemployment qualifications for aid. The beneficiaries of the aid were asked to redo their paperwork in order to see if they qualified under the updated criteria. 

Roughly 450,000 claimants failed to respond, but the UIA has since announced they will not demand the money back from 350,000 of them. 

Rose Zibert, acting regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor wrote a letter to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity on Feb. 10 informing Olson that four criteria mentioned in the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) did not align with the CARES Act criteria. The UIA did not give Johnson and the oversight committee a copy of the Feb. 10 letter, but instead gave them a copy of a Feb. 25 notice. Olson later said they should have given them a copy of the Feb. 10 letter. 

The PUA was established along with two other federal unemployment aid programs in March 2020 as part of the CARES Act to help those who lost their jobs during the pandemic stay afloat. 

In January, 10 months after the start of the pandemic in Michigan, 21,400 claimants whose claims were certified, were awaiting payment by the Michigan UIA. 

The agency had paid 2.3 million claimants as of January since March 15, 2020 while 290,509 claims were denied or withdrawn.

In July 2021, Michigan’s unemployment rate was at 4.8%, .6 points below the national average. In April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, Michigan’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to 22.7% the highest rate since at least 1976. 

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Julia Forrest
Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a contributor to the Michigan Advance. She has been covering Michigan and national politics for two years at the Michigan Daily and OpenSecrets. She studies public policy at the University of Michigan.