Susan J. Demas: Michigan’s Unemployment System Fiasco Has Damaged Too Many Lives

Being fired was one of the low points of my life.

Sure, it taught me a lot about the media business and basic human nature. And it (quite unintentionally) paved the way for me to run two companies and have far more time with my children.

But as someone who gave their all and devoted upwards of 90 hours a week to work, being fired made me question everything --- who I was, what was important, what I really wanted to do with my life.

I’ve written about this before in columns and humorously in the FAQ in my website, which one dour former colleague begged me to take down (“It has too much about you being fired,” he warned). Honesty is something I’ve always promised my readers, however, which is why I’ve shared my personal experiences, like my miscarriage and being raped, when I’ve written about related policy matters.

So I admittedly have a rather visceral reaction to the fact that there are at least 20,000 cases in which Michiganders were falsely accused of unemployment fraud from October 2013 and August 2015. If I had claimed benefits, I could have been one of them.

The problem seems to have primarily stemmed from a new computer system, Michigan Integrated Data Automated System (MiDAS), which falsely flagged people for committing fraud and thus receiving payments they weren’t entitled to.

The falsely accused were then forced to pay back their benefits –– and were hit with interest and penalties that were often two to four times their original payment. Their wages and income tax refunds were garnished.

As a result, many who were already reeling from the loss of a job —— which is pretty traumatic, in and of itself —— say they lost their homes or had to file bankruptcy. It’s amazing how many lives can be damaged and how many families can be uprooted by a computer program error.

A judge just approved an agreement that halts most collections for those claiming benefits during that two-year period. And the state is looking into another 30,000 cases during that time for possible errors.

But for too many people, it will be too little too late. And it’s fair to ask, as some like U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Royal Oak) have done, why it took so long for the state to admit error and take action to help people.

I began hearing of problems with MiDAS back in early 2014 and discussed this with Tony Trupiano on his Detroit-based radio show. But the state repeatedly dragged its feet and only seemed to respond after TV news shined a light on the problem.

It’s hard not to see parallels with the Flint water crisis. For months, residents pleaded with government officials to no avail about their foul-smelling water that was sickening children. Only after doctors, scientists and reporters started raising hell did the state begin to respond. But that was after too many kids tested positive for lead and too many people died of Legionnaire’s disease.

The poor and unemployed have traditionally been forgotten members of society. As dozens of readers have pointed out to me over the years (often in curiously spelled screeds), these folks deserve what they get. They’re just too dumb or too lazy to succeed, so why should we care about them?

I don’t think Gov. Rick Snyder or his administration are that callous. But it does seem that the problems of the dispossessed consistently don’t rate as high as those of business owners. And there’s been an unhealthy level of skepticism leveled at many who are needlessly suffering.

The governor has less than two more years to leave a legacy. Doing more to help everyday people would be a good start.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.