The 13 Watchdog team is learning about a major reorganization effort at Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency, including the reassignment of the agency's director Sharon Moffett-Massey.
Moffett-Massey has now been assigned to work on special projects within the department. The leadership shakeup happens as the UIA is being sued in a class action lawsuit by people who feel they were wrongly accused of insurance fraud.
Bruce Noll, an executive within the state's Talent Investment Agency (TIA), will serve as interim director during a national search for a new director. The search is expected to last three to four months.
TIA Director Wanda Stokes, who oversees the UIA, sat down with the 13 Watchdog team for an exclusive TV interview on Thursday and said she is going to be doing a top-to-bottom review of the department focusing on better customer service, reviewing the agency's structure and identifying and addressing fraud.
“We need to work quickly,” Stokes said. “At all times we must remember that we are here to serve our state’s residents and employers. When people are looking for work, they look to us for help and we must do our best to get them the help they are entitled to.”
The fraud issue is the sticky part for the UIA at the moment.
The class action lawsuits are underway against the governmental entity alleging people were falsely accused of fraud when they made valid unemployment claims. The plaintiffs say the State of Michigan wrongly took millions of dollars away from innocent people.
One of the big changes that's already happened is the promise by the UIA to have staff members actually looking at determinations made, rather than relying solely on computer software which is what had been happening over the last couple of years.
"What we have learned is that you need the individual to review because our talented staff are trained properly and they can review those claims," Stokes said. "They are the best ones to determine fraud."
Before the recent changes, the state's automated computer system made fraud determinations on thousands of cases with little to no input from the claimants or even state employees. Some of the claimants were never notified there was a problem in the system and were eventually found to have committed fraud even if they weren't aware they were under investigation.
The state's Auditor General recently indicated the state's UIA did not do enough to contact people who had claims that were questioned.
The Auditor General also found the UIA's customer service was abysmal. At times they took about 10% of all calls into the agency.
The Unemployment Insurance Agency recently indicated it reviewed more than 20,000 fraud cases and more than 90 percent of them had been overturned in favor of the claimant. Millions of dollars are expected to be returned because of that suggesting all of these changes needed to be made.
The lead attorney on the lawsuits, Jennifer Lord of Pitt McGehee Palmer and Rivers, says there are approximately 60,000 people as part of the class action lawsuits against the UIA. Many of those claimants were the ones complaining that money was wrongly confiscated through the garnishment process. They are now having to wait through a lengthy court process to get their money back.
"It was not (the state's) money to take," Lord said.
As part of the changes, Stokes, who became the Talent Investment Agency director back in July, indicated she has an extensive plan to make the agency better.
"We don't want it to be the worst experience for people," Stoke said. "Our goal is to make sure the experience is the best it can be."
She says the UIA will address better customer service issues and she promises the agency will "do a better job listening to its customers to ensure they are assisted effectively and efficiently to get the benefits they are entitled to."