Michigan UIA director on unemployment claims: ‘We have appointments’ and ‘phone lines are in a better place’

Director Julia Dale sits down to answer series of questions about agency that has faced harsh criticism during pandemic

Michigan's UIA director said claimants can make calls

Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) Director Julia Dale took over the position in October 2021.

We sat down with her recently to discuss the challenges the agency faces nearly two years since the coronavirus pandemic struck the state of Michigan. The state has gone through two UIA directors during the pandemic, and now Dale is the third.

She takes over an agency that has been riddled with big problems since the start of the pandemic -- a website that couldn’t keep up with demand, rampant fraud and a shift in leadership during those challenging times.

Full interview: Q&A with new Michigan UIA director

Question: If people right now have concerns with their benefits, what’s the best way to address it? Is it phone calls? It is online chat? Is it in-person visit? What do you think is the best way for somebody to get information is?

Dale: “Again, I think that depends on the individual. Because for some people it’s easier when you are face-to-face with someone and have that opportunity to explain in person and you feel like you’re getting that feedback.”

Question: In terms of over the phone, the phone lines have been jammed up -- are they still?

Dale: “I think our phone lines are in a better place than they have been throughout the pandemic. I get reports of those calls and I get reports of where we are with appointments, and so we have options either way. I do think that people tend to feel more satisfied when they have an opportunity to meet with someone face-to-face. We know that we have appointments that are available for those in-person appointments at the local offices. So I would absolutely encourage constituents to check that out.”

Question: What do you think, looking at it now and having been in this position, are the biggest problems that the Michigan UIA faces?

Dale: “I think that there are a lot of challenges that the agency faces. I think the first one is really a culture change. A shift in looking at how we do the work and evaluating our processes. I think from an internal control standpoint, you know, looking at established policies and procedures, identifying opportunities for improvement ... getting clear decision trees in place and in line. Making sure that we are operating as a team instead of in silos, right? Having one voice as an agency -- I think that’s a challenge that we face.”

Question: What do you say to the people who are still struggling, who are still having problems getting into the system or collecting their benefits? These people are frustrated. I hear from them all of the time. What do you say to those people who say, “I have had enough with the UIA?”

Dale: “First I say that I hear their frustration. Just as you hear these concerns, I do as well. You know, one of the things that we did -- because we recognize that we are getting a lot of calls about questions coming in regarding the status of their claim, overpayment, or restitution -- is we launched a new website, not a new website but a new webpage as part of our website, to really walk claimants through our process. We noticed in evaluating what we had online that a lot of the information was scattered amongst different pages. And so we really worked to pull that information together to one place where claimants can really track the information available to them, understand the processes and where they’re at within that process, provide them with guidance with regard to timelines that they might need to respond to, and also provide information for advocates that may be able to be assistance to them during this process.”

Question: What’s the best advice for somebody who is still struggling? Should they be trying to make an appointment to go in physically somewhere, the chat features -- what is the best way for them to get an actual person and interaction where they can solve their problem?

Dale: “Well I can tell you that we do have appointments available. Those appointments can be made online, and I do know that all of those appointments are not being filled. We have appointments at our local offices that are going unbooked. And so if an individual really desires to meet with someone in person, you know if their comfort level and the best level of communication and understanding for them is in person, they can go online to our website and make an appointment are their local office. We know that we have available appointments that just aren’t being taken advantage of. Again, though, in light of where we are with the pandemic, if someone is more comfortable in speaking with someone online you can also make a virtual appointment. So there are a lot of options there to meet claimants wherever they are, as far as their comfort level.”

Question: What do you think the single biggest problem with UIA is right now?

Dale: “I think the single biggest problem is the lack of consistent and steadfast leadership. I’m the 11th director in 10 years, and without that consistent leadership at the top, to be able to take and follow through a project or a plan to address concerns, you know, without that single voice that is consistent, that is there constantly providing support to the staff, I think it can be easy for things to fall apart every time a new director comes into place.”

Question: When you hear from people frustrated with the UIA, what is the No. 1 frustration? What are people so upset about?

Dale: “I think people, they’re frustrated about their benefits and getting their benefits. Or that they’re lost in the process. You know, it’s a difficult process to understand and to navigate.”

Question: So how do you get people on track? Especially right now?

Dale: “We work in, again, trying to find ways to communicate without our constituents, how to understand our process. So again, launching a new webpage to really explain our system and our processes. Making sure that we get the right people -- are the constituents connected to the right people that can address the questions that they have. Whether it’s related to an issue of restitution or whether it’s related to an issue of getting their claim paid out.”

Michigan UIA resources:

About the Author:

Hank Winchester is Local 4’s Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV’s “Help Me Hank” Consumer Unit. Hank works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off people in our community.