Interview with new Michigan UIA director: ‘I feel the pressure, responsibility to get it right’

Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency has another new director tasked with fixing list of problems

The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) has been riddled with big problems since the start of the pandemic.

The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) has been riddled with big problems since the start of the pandemic.

They’ve had a website that couldn’t keep up with demand, rampant fraud and a shift in leadership during those challenging times. New UIA Director Julia Dale is at the helm now and she’s promising big changes, but will it be enough to help thousands still struggling?

I’ve been tracking the problems since the beginning and exposing the issues that have caused fraud and financial difficulty for so many. Now, another change at the top. Dale is speaking to us in her first interview.

Full interview: Q&A with new Michigan UIA director

Our first question: Why would anyone want this job?

“It’s a good questions and one that I’ve been asked a few times. There was an obvious need at UIA and I felt like I could come here and make a difference,” she said.

Dale comes from the Michigan attorney general’s office. She has worked in government roles most of her career but this position is unlike anything else, and she knows everyone is watching and waiting.

“I feel the pressure but also the responsibility to get it right. It will take time but right now we’re already working on the issues and we know we have many to work on,” she said.

So what will change? Director Dale hopes it will be a lot. The focus right now is o improving technology, updating the the outdated system, and focusing on training the existing employees and new hires. They simply need to know how to solve your problems.

We’ve gone through two different UIA directors during the pandemic, so why should people think this will be different?

“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,” Dale said. “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.”

What would she say to those who are still struggling with issues?

“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,” said Dale.

Technology, a dated system and a staff unable to keep up -- it’s been one of the biggest problems. How do you fix that?

“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,” said Dale. “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.”

And if you’re still having issues? What is the best advice for people still struggling?

“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,” said Dale. “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.”

But Director Dale is the 11th director at UIA in 10 years. That’s a ton of instability, and while she says she’s committed to changing the culture, improving technology and making sweeping training changes, some are skeptical. Dale knows this. She said it is motivating her to prove the skeptics wrong.

“You know we have faced criticism from a variety of sources, and I think a lot of the questions at times they’re fair,” she said. “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.”

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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.