Sunday Read: Q&A with new Michigan UIA director: Unemployment claims, frustrations, fraud, more

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

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 of Michigan 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. Watch Hank Winchester's full interview with Dale here. For more from Hank:

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.

Dale 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.

Sunday Read is ClickOnDetroit’s Sunday news review to help readers catch up on some of the most important topics of the week.

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: We’ve already gone through two directors of the UIA during the pandemic. You’re now the third. Why should people think anything is going to be different now?

Dale: “I think that the oversight committee has asked that same question, right? ‘Why do we trust you?’ And I think that first, as you pointed out, it’s a risk for me to come over. This isn’t something that I come into with eyes closed. I come into this recognizing that there are opportunities for change. And I think that the proof is really in what I do. For instance, whether it’s looking at identifying training opportunities for staff, developing training plans, reviewing -- like I mentioned -- our internal controls and putting into place new processes and systems. I think the proof is really in the work that I do, and that’s the process that we’re in right now. Now mind you, I’m only in ... I’m not quite 60 days in yet.”

Question: What do you see when you come into it and you start learning about how things are going -- it seems like to me your focus right now is technology. What can be done to improve the system that we’re in right now?

Dale: “Well certainly we know that the system we’re working with is a system that was implemented many years ago and, you know, there are opportunities for modernization there. We’re recognizing that the needs that existed at the time (the system) was implemented have changed, from what we’re looking at now. We know that we need a system that is not only robust, or able to handle a heavy load that came as a consequence of the pandemic crisis, but we also need a system that is able to be agile -- able to pivot quickly and to be able to have changes made quickly to address, you know, whether it’s implementing new requirements or new language. We recognize that those are things that we need to have in place. We also recognize that there is cutting-edge technology out there, compared to what was out there 10 years ago. And we want to take advantage of that.”

Question: But how long will it take for people at home to be able to take advantage of that cutting-edge technology?

Dale: “So right now we are in the process of updating the existing database that we have. And we will see those implementations, you know -- the goal is to see those in place this coming summer. But the true -- looking at either completely overhauling or replacing the system, that’s going to be a multi-year process. We just finished a request for information. We will see a request for proposal launched in early 2022. And that’s when we’re going to be looking for vendors to really put their best foot forward and tell us what they can offer in the way of modernization.”

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: Do you think one of the problems is, too, that early in the pandemic the UIA did work to hire a lot of new people? Let’s face it: A lot of them didn’t understand the systems themselves. They didn’t have the information to pass on to the claimant. That had to be frustrating.

Dale: “I can imagine. You know, UIA is a complex program. The law, the state law, the federal law, is complex. What we are doing right now, however, is we’re identifying amongst our staff -- both permanent and part-time staff -- we’re looking at -- where are the knowledge and technical gaps? Going through, identifying training processes in each area, and working through those with leadership to say, ‘Where are the gaps? Where are the opportunities for growth and improvement?’ Because we recognize that when our customers, when our constituents get on the phone with someone they really need to have that experience be one that is knowledgeable, that is effective and is efficient. And so we’re working on improving that. I think the other thing that we’re working to do is really take advantage of opportunities, identify opportunities, to cross train our staff so that we’re able to pivot and move in response to the needs that we see from our constituents.”

Question: Do you believe that these problems will be solved, the majority of them, in a short amount of time. Realistically?

Dale: “Realistically ... I think a short amount of time -- are these changes that are going to take place in 30 days or 60 days? I think that’s probably asking a lot. Ideally? Yes. Could I snap my fingers and things would change overnight? Absolutely. But if that was the case then it would have been done long before now.”

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: Fraud has been a huge problem, not only within the agency itself, but with people making claims that did not deserve to receive that money. Do you have a fraud unit? What’s being done to go after those people who are collecting money that should never have been collecting money to begin with?

Dale: “We have a division that is focused on identifying fraud, and this group also works in partnership with the fraud task force. Not only that but we also work with our federal partners, we work with the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, to identify and implement best practices. We have had a lot of success there in those partnerships.”

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Question: What would you say to those who feel like they’ve kind of gotten away with it. There are people who collected because in the early days of the pandemic it was kind of the Wild Wild West of people hopping online and getting approval for benefits. There weren’t a lot of checks and balances. What’s being done right now to make sure only those who need it are getting that money?

Dale: “I don’t want to go into specifics, because we don’t want to let those who are the fraudsters know all of our tools, but I will say that we have best practices in place. We are partnering with state and federal agencies, and also with other jurisdictions, to really identify fraud. It’s something that we take very seriously. We recognize that there are residents in this state that have earned and deserve these benefits, and we are going to work very hard, and we’re going to continue to work hard, to make sure that the criminals are not going to take advantage of that.”

Question: It really seems like when the light switch flipped up for the independent contractors, that’s where things kind of went bonkers a little bit for people collecting, right?

Dale: “I think that there are a lot of different things that came into play with fraud. We have seen trends across the country that are not unique to what we’re seeing in Michigan, whether we’re looking at certainly identity theft plays a factor in there, larger criminal efforts. There are a variety of things that have impacted those fraud numbers.”

Question: We’ve already seen people brought into court and facing charges. The penalties for fraud -- whether it’s a high-tech thief, someone who is trying to tap into the system from out of state, or somebody who lives in Metro Detroit who thinks they’re going to collect a paycheck even though they don’t deserve it -- the penalties are pretty severe, right?

Dale: “They are. And we look to pursue where we see these bad actors. Where we’re working with our federal and state partners, we want to send the message that we’re not going to tolerate the criminal activity.”

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.”

Question: It seems like this was a major problem: UIA hired temporary workers to try to answer these calls, to get on the website, and these workers were not properly trained. True?

Dale: “I think there’s opportunities for improvement without having been engaged in that training process. What I can tell you is I’m identifying now what are the training plans that are in place. Where do we see opportunities to build upon them? And also examining how do you in a situation like this implement a plan as quickly as possible while still giving the staff the necessary training and support that they need.”

Question: The Republican leadership has been very clear that they think UIA just needs to be imploded -- start from scratch, build it from the ground back up. What do you say to those who have been really harsh on not only the leadership but with what’s been going on with this organization?

Dale: “You know we have faced criticism from a variety of sources, and I think a lot of the questions at times they’re fair. People want to know why and they want to understand how things happen. My goal, especially with the Legislature, is to build this platform of trust in my leadership, and you build that trust by not just going in there and being transparent and taking advantage of the opportunities to communicate with them openly, but also then to come in and be able to demonstrate, ‘Here are the things that I’m putting into place that really address the concerns that you have.’ And I look forward to continuing to do that.”

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: Is there anything else you want to talk about? And what is your hope for the future?

Dale: “One of the things I want to highlight is the work we are doing with a local Detroit non profit by the name of Civilla. They are really working hand-in-hand with us, step-by-step, to identify opportunities to make our process, and the interaction with UIA for both employers and claimants, to be one that is simple and efficient, and more human-centered. They have done an excellent job of working one-on-one with my staff to understand our process, but they’re not only working with our staff, they’re talking with out claimants, they’re talking with employers to have a better understanding of the frustrations that they’ve experienced, with an end goal of really looking to improve not only our correspondence with individuals but also our website, you know, our online interactions and also the interactions that occur at our local centers.”

Question: Does that information come to you at the end of a certain period? Are they in the research phase still? Do you already have feedback from them?

Dale: “They are in the research phase but I just met with them last week to get an update from them on where things are and what the next steps are. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet with them as well as our staff that are part of that core group that they’re working with and to hear the feedback -- some of the things that they’re realizing about the organization and opportunities for improvement. I’ve had many opportunities to sit down with their leadership to talk about my goal and visions for the organization in the coming year, and it’s very satisfying to partner with an organization that is just so committed to helping us serve our constituents better.”

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About the Author:

Hank Winchester is Local 4's Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV's "Help Me Hank" Consumer Unit. He works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off metro Detroiters.