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UIA free legal aid program adds advocates, increases pay
November 06, 2023
Advocacy Program prepares claimants, employers for appeal hearings
The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) has added six legal experts to its Advocacy Program and boosted pay by 30 percent as part of a top-to-bottom transformation of the agency aimed at rethinking how it provides resources and support to workers and employers who rely on the services UIA provides.
Beginning this month, 32 advocates are available at no cost to claimants or employers to help prepare appeals of UIA decisions on unemployment benefit applications.
“We listened and responded when the people we serve told us they needed more help with their claims,” UIA Director Julia Dale said. “Our call for new advocates was well received and demonstrates our commitment to providing exemplary customer service. We hope workers use this important resource as well as our new UIA Claimant Roadmap and First-time Filer Coaching Sessions to help guide them through the process to apply for and claim jobless benefits.”
This is the first time since 2019 that pay has been increased for advocates, who are independent contractors and not UIA employees. They will now receive $65 for consultations and $130 for hearing representations.
Although advocates do not have to be an attorney, they must be knowledgeable about unemployment law and pass a rigorous test administered by the UIA.
How the Advocacy Program works
Claimants and employers have a right to dispute benefits determinations by the UIA. After a protest of a UIA decision is filed, agency staff will review the information and make a redetermination. A redetermination can be appealed to an administrative law judge (ALJ).
It is at this point that a claimant or employer can apply to the Advocacy Program for help from an advocate to review their case and prepare for a hearing before an ALJ. ALJs are part of the Michigan Office of Administrative and Hearing Rules (MOAHR).
Since the Advocacy Program was started in 1991 it has provided free legal help to over 260,000 users.
The UIA recruited new advocates in September and expects to do so again in 2024.
Fixing the past with an eye toward the future
Improving the Advocacy Program is one of the many ways Director Dale is moving decisively to modernize the UIA into a national model for fast, fair, and fraud-free service.
For claimants, the UIA recently launched First-time Filer Coaching Sessions, which provide online, web-based guidance from UIA staff who walk users through the steps needed to complete an application and qualify for payments. Since launching in late August, more than 250 claimants have participated in coaching sessions.
UIA also launched the Claimant Roadmap, an easy-to-follow, user-friendly six-step guide to applying for and understanding benefits. It was designed by the Detroit non-profit design studio Civilla, which also is designing a companion Employer Help Center, expected to launch later this year. The Employer Help Center will serve as a centralized hub for employers to efficiently manage their most common unemployment tax and claim issues.
Director Dale has approved replacing the aging MiWAM computer system, which uses 2010 technology to address very different needs of 2020 and beyond. The new system, expected to be fully functional in 2025, will incorporate an updated design with robust anti-fraud measures to speed claims filing and tax processing.
Outside stakeholders have open lines of communication through the UIA Modernization Workgroup, created by Director Dale in January. The workgroup includes members who represent labor, the business community, and jobless advocates to advise the agency on significant improvements in how it can better serve Michigan’s workers and employers.
Other significant changes throughout agency
Since being named in October 2021 as director of the UIA – the agency's 11th leader in as many years – Director Dale has also:
- Created the UIA Community Connect program with 10 regional experts who will provide hands-on help and expertise in navigating the unemployment insurance application process, connect workers or employers to resources within the UIA, and provide outreach and education.
- Named a Legal Advisor and created the Legal and Compliance Bureau to leverage collaborative anti-fraud practices for pursuing bad actors.
- Extended through September 2024 nearly 50 limited term positions in the Fraud and Investigations Division, with 30 more hired this past October.
- Collaborated with the Attorney General’s office as well as local, state and federal law enforcement to bring bad actors to justice and combat fraud at the agency. To date, 158 individuals have been arrested or charged in connection with unemployment fraud, 80 have been convicted, and 51 sentenced for their crimes.
- Secured a more than $2.3 million equitable access and communications grant from the USDOL Tiger Teams initiative to redesign and simplify how UIA engages with employers and develop a help center for accessing agency services.
- Revamped the agency’s public website at Michigan.gov/UIA to be more user-friendly and responsive for those accessing services using cell phones or tablets.
- Rebuilt the UI Trust Fund to more than $2.3 billion (and growing), from which weekly benefits are paid to workers.
- Reassigned staff and resources to address the largest categories of claims that are contributing to the agency’s case backlogs.
- Approved more than 76,000 overpayment waivers (with more to come) of state and federal benefits paid during the global pandemic, waiving more than $555 million.
- Halted overpayment collections on claims filed since March 1, 2020, while the agency addresses pending protests and appeals. More than $13 million was refunded to workers since May 2022.
- Implemented new ethics and security clearance policies for employees and contractors.
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