Flint, MI—Flint’s unemployment rate is hovering around 7.5%, down significantly from its height of nearly 31% in April last year, but that good news was tempered late last month when many Flint residents were sent this letter from Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency.

The letter notified Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) beneficiaries—mostly freelancers, contractors, or part-time workers—that they had 20 days to update their prior or current unemployment filing for criteria that had changed since they originally filed it. The letter further stated that some beneficiaries may be required to pay “restitution” if the Michigan UIA determined they did not “re-qualify” under the new criteria.

The new criteria removed four of the Michigan UIA’s qualifying reasons for PUA benefits after those reasons were not approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. The removed reasons were:

  • Your work hours were reduced as a direct result of COVID-19.
  • You are seeking part-time employment and affected by COVID-19.
  • You have insufficient work history to qualify for regular unemployment compensation and are affected by COVID-19. 
  • You are unemployed or working less than regular hours as a result of COVID-19 and were denied benefits on another claim.

The changed criteria also added the following reasons, listed in the letter:

  • I was denied continuing unemployment benefits because I refused to return to work or accept an offer at a worksite that, in either instance, is not in compliance with local, state, or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19. This includes but is not limited to those related to facial mask wearing, physical distancing measures, or the provision of personal protective equipment consistent with public health guidelines.
  • I provide services to an educational institution or educational service agency and am unemployed or partially unemployed because of volatility in the work scheduled that is directly caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency. This includes, but is not limited to, changes in schedules and partial closures.
  • I am an employee and my hours have been reduced or I was laid off as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • None of the above apply to me.

Though Genesee County has the fifth largest population of Michigan’s 83 counties, as of mid-July, it has the state’s second greatest number of people collecting unemployment benefits based on civilian labor force. (That’s the number of people, 16 or older, who are not inmates of institutions or currently serving in the Armed Forces.) So even if some residents weren’t affected, many knew someone who was.

“I count myself blessed,” said Darrell Fair, a Flint resident who lost his job with Consumers Energy in May 2021. Fair said he and his wife were fortunate to have kept employment through the height of the pandemic, especially knowing that so many others did not. “I’m experiencing the COVID part late,” he said.

Fair is looking for work—he was formerly a power distribution engineer—while awaiting unemployment benefits he filed for back in May. “But I’m not pressed right now, not yet.”

But while Fair isn’t feeling the pinch, the UIA letter sparked widespread concern across the state.

Along with announcing that beneficiaries needed to re-qualify for their benefits, last month’s UIA letter also noted that former or current beneficiaries may owe “restitution for benefits improperly paid” to them pending the outcome of the UIA’s review. 

That potential sparked some Michigan lawmakers to call for a House Oversight Committee investigation into the UIA.

The 20 day refiling deadline passed last week with no certainty on whether the state would issue waivers to those who had fallen under now-eligible PUA criteria. 

Since then, however, Governor Gretchen Whitmer confirmed that the state will be issuing waivers for overpayments that were the result of truthful attestation.

In a July 20 press release, Whitmer said: “I want to be clear to every Michigander who did the right thing: no one who followed the rules and received benefits through no fault of their own should have to pay back money to the federal government.”

For those who missed the refiling deadline, UIA spokesperson Lynda Robinson said in an email that the process to receive a waiver for overpayment “is essentially the same except that the UIA will review the information already received to determine whether there is an overpayment and whether the individual is entitled to a waiver of overpayment.”

That means that if someone did not re-attest by the deadline but qualified for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance under the old criteria, Robinson said, they should receive a waiver.

Robinson added that she believes the UIA will begin mailing waivers this week.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....