Jennifer Larke’s descent into unemployment hell started in April 2020. Not just because she lost her job due to the pandemic, but because of the stress, anxiety, and metaphorical mud the state’s unemployment insurance agency has dragged her through since—along with hundreds of thousands of others.
“I had been working down at Duke University in North Carolina for nine years,” she recalls by phone from her car. Larke and her family are originally from Michigan, and “because my parents decided to move back,” she did, too.
Her last day at Duke was March 6, 2020. She immediately left for Michigan, where she had already landed a job at University Hospital as an administrative assistant—“the same type of work that I was doing down in North Carolina.”
She’d only been there a week before the Henry Ford Cancer Center offered her more money and a signing bonus, so she switched. But then the pandemic hit—and hospitals turned all their efforts toward caring for Covid patients.
“I was placed on temporary furlough the third week of April,” she says. So she did what laid-off people are supposed to do: went to the website of the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (MUIA) and applied for unemployment benefits.
“At first, they kind of jerked me around about my ID not being in Michigan,” she says. “I had signed a lease here. I had moved everything. My dogs. Nothing was left in North Carolina. So they started paying”—though only $160 per week, “because they wouldn’t count my North Carolina wages. That went on for a while.”
Every week, Larke went back online to answer questions required to qualify for the next week’s benefits. “They would deny things here and there,” she says. “There was a lot of back and forth.”
But then, “they decided that I wasn’t eligible for anything.” And they didn’t just stop paying benefits. “They started sending me collection notices,” demanding she return what she’d already received.
In July, she learned that she wouldn’t be going back to Henry Ford—her position had been eliminated. She started to look for other jobs.
“I knew I was marketable,” she says. “If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I would have gotten hired right away.”
While she searched for a full-time job, she picked up work “at a snack bar at a golf course.” When the golf season ended, “I was a hostess and bussing tables at my friend’s restaurant in Plymouth.” But it was December before she had a steady paycheck again.
“I lived on credit cards. I cashed out my retirement,” she says. “It was a horrible experience. It was financial ruin.
“I’m fifty years old. I had to bring my eighty-three-year-old dad to get a new lease on my car because my credit took a dive.”
All this time, the MUIA kept asking for more information. “They would ask a question [online], and I would answer it,” Larke remembers. “Then the same question would show up again, and my answer had disappeared. Where did my answer go?
“I uploaded two pay stubs. They’d ask me for the same information, and I would go to submit it again— I thought, ‘Maybe something happened when I submitted it.’ Then it would say, ‘You can’t submit this because you already submitted it.’
“It completely defied logic! It was hard to believe that somebody was actually looking at it. You know what I mean? Trying to make decisions based on that—it was just unreal.”
Ashley Baker was working in food delivery when the pandemic hit, “bringing food from favorite local restaurants into the workplace, so the employees wouldn’t have to go out for lunch,” she says. When the pandemic hit, her bosses didn’t wait for the state shutdown: “I was laid off March 12, 2020.”
Raised in Ann Arbor and now living in Ypsilanti, Baker went online to file a claim. It wasn’t the first time she’d been out of work, and she knew the system.
Like Larke, she went back online weekly to recertify, “to make sure your information is the same, make sure you’re still laid off, that you haven’t picked up any type of earnings, to make sure everything’s the same,” she says. “Because of course the slightest financial change, and they’ll adjust it to what you should be getting.”
Her first application was rejected, Baker says, but eventually she was approved for thirteen weeks of benefits. And when the federal CARES act added an extra $600-a-week benefit to people who’d lost jobs in the pandemic, “I started getting that.”
It added up to $755 a week—a lot better than nothing, but not a lot for a single mom of three. And then, MUIA “started asking me for paperwork.” Since she had been laid off before the shutdown, they wanted her to prove that it was because of the pandemic.
“I got my employer to type something up, and I made several copies of it, and I sent them everything that they asked for,” she recalls. “I am a very thorough person when it comes to paperwork, because I already know that if you miss a step they’re quick to cut you off. I sent the check stubs they asked for. I sent the proof from my employer that they asked for. And they still cut me off.
“I know for a fact that I sent in everything that they asked for,” she says. “I don’t know if they didn’t get it, or the system didn’t process it, or what. But then they sent me something else saying that I never sent anything in and I owed them the money back because I didn’t prove that I was laid off due to Covid.”
For almost a year now, MUIA has been sending Baker letters demanding that she return the benefits she received. “It’s a significant amount of money,” she says. “They’re asking me for over $16,000 back.”
She doesn’t have that kind of money. She’s heard that “there’s some type of waiver going around. People are being excused. But it’s almost like you have to fight for it. No one is stepping up to help.”
“I got the number to Legal Aid,” she says. “I wasn’t able to get through. I actually called a couple of times. I can imagine how busy they are with people wanting to get advice, with everything that’s going on.” But she needs “to get to the bottom of it, because they’re threatening to garnish my wages, and they’re threatening to take my [tax refund].”
And there was no one to talk to at MUIA. “I tried to take care of this before they started saying all of this [about garnishing her pay and tax return],” Baker says. “But there was literally no help from unemployment. You couldn’t even ask a question.”
Meanwhile, the bills keep coming in. “I’m waiting to get some legal advice, or get some type of advice, on how to proceed,” she says.
Jennifer Larke decided to hire a lawyer: David Blanchard. A self-described “small town kid,” who practices employment and civil rights law, he is representing her individually and also as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state over MUIA’s conduct.
The agency, he says, was “under resourced and not quite competent” even before the pandemic, with “a defective computer system.” When hundreds of thousands of people like Larke and Baker lost their jobs simultaneously, “they had claims go through the roof.
“They had new programs to administer, and changing law and guidance they had to respond to, and were unable to,” Blanchard says. He calls it “a perfect storm.”
Problems with the MUIA computer system were well-documented. Back in 2015, U-M law prof Steve Gray told Michigan Radio that “as a result of trying to catch people that have committed fraud, we’ve cast too big a net, and we’re catching so many more people that actually are innocent … it presumes that people commit fraud, and it doesn’t give people a really good opportunity to explain what happened.”
The lawsuit, which Blanchard hopes will be certified as a class action, argues that the agency is “violating due process rights by assessing ‘overpayments’ and initiating collection activity, without any authority/jurisdiction to do so,” he emails. “This is either because it’s too early (before offering waiver, or while appeals are still pending) or too late (redeterminations reversing eligibility more than a year later).”
He’s asked the Michigan Court of Claims to issue an injunction that would halt collections until the court rules on the constitutionality of MUIA’s actions. It’s difficult to get across just how badly the agency screwed up, he says, but the judge “listened carefully” at a May hearing, and he’s “cautiously optimistic.”
What about the waivers that Baker heard about? There have been reports that MUIA will no longer pursue repayment from tens of thousands of claimants.
Blanchard brushes it off as incomplete and disingenuous. “They waived 55,000 claims instead of the 400,000 the director told the legislator were going to be waived,” he says. “Honestly, I think they don’t even know what they have on their hands, and how many people they are collecting against.
“There’s no formal freeze [on collections] … and again, nobody got a letter, ‘Oh sorry, we’re going to start collections again,’ or anything. All they get are bills and empty promises.
“I think it’s absolutely irresponsible what the agency has done. The first thing that should happen, before a press release, is you send out a letter to everybody you’re [halting] collection on. And you explain that to them. And then you explain what the next steps are. And then you issue a press release that says, ‘Hey, we’ve instituted this program. We’ve sent a letter to every eligible claimant who’s going to get reviewed.
“That’s how you administer policy. That’s how you administer public benefits.Instead the agency seems more focused on their public image and telling the press that it’s all going to get fixed than actually delivering on that.
“Michigan is not alone, failing the unemployed in the pandemic,” says Blanchard. “A lot of states didn’t do well, but this I think is one of the worst.”
He thinks the MUIA has a “well-intentioned director now. We’re waiting to see what she’s able to do. I’ve heard she’s looking at other states. I’ve heard Minnesota did a pretty good job.”
But the damage has already been done. “I hear time and time again, from people I represent, ‘I don’t care how much I need it,’ ” Blanchard says. “ ‘I will never apply for unemployment benefits again.’
“The result is going to be [that] people aren’t able to make their bills, are getting evicted, are unable to buy food for their kids—that is the point of the program! To get this money out to people.
“The other point of the program, when it comes to the pandemic, was to get a lot of money out to people so the economy doesn’t collapse, so the landlords don’t go bankrupt.
“This was a financial stimulus package as much as a social safety net for people,” Blanchard points out. “That was the intention—to get this money out to people quickly. Can you imagine if they administered the PPP loan program like this? You’d get all the businesses getting bills two years later saying, ‘Oh, we messed up. We don’t think you’re qualified now.’ ”
Hearings in Larke’s personal case began in the fall of 2021, for benefits that should have been received in 2020. This March, an administrative law judge “ruled—finally—in my favor,” Larke says. In April, she received “everything they owed me—which was just under $10,000.”
When asked if she thinks she would have gotten any of it back without Blanchard’s help, she says without hesitation, “absolutely not.”
That’s why, despite her getting the money owed her, she’s still part of the prospective class action suit.
“Why did it take two years to pay me what I was owed?” Larke asks. She’s continuing as a plaintiff in the second case “to help everybody else—because there are so many other people in my same situation.”
She really likes her new job at the U-M, but she’s still digging out of her pandemic hole. “I actually just got hired by Zingerman’s,” she reported in May, “to bartend for some of their events, for weddings and what not this summer.”
Baker couldn’t afford a lawyer, and even if she could, Blanchard says he’s too busy to take on any more personal clients. She has yet to hear from MUIA about a waiver.
“After they cut me off, I ended up working,” she says, first for a call center, and now doing residential and commercial cleaning.
How does she feel?
“I don’t know how to feel,” Baker says. “I guess I’m angry about it. I’m trying not to be so angry, because I know that I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m trying to contain my emotions [about] something I cannot control.
“But it is an upsetting feeling, because you’re kind of afraid of the domino effect—like, ‘Is this going to go on my credit? Are they going to garnish my wages?’ The stress goes into that. What are they going to start to do before I can get it situated?
“I am in a time in my life where I pick my battles and what stresses me out,” she says.
“But as a state, they should be ashamed of themselves, as a whole. You wait until a pandemic to fix an already broken system?”