MICHAEL P. GIBSON: Good customer service?

Four years ago, Gov. Rick Snyder called for the state government to be judged on customer service. Here is my personal experience with the "new and improved" Unemployment Insurance Agency.

Last year, like most years, I was laid off by my employer for six weeks in the fall. I made ski boat propellers. Demand is usually slack between the period in the fall when boaters stop breaking their propellers and the winter boat shows when the boat companies start getting orders (fueled by income tax refunds). I always saved my vacation pay to help cover my lower income during this time. This was last year's disaster.

I went online to register. I did not realize I had to get a new password due to the changes to my account, because the web page warning about the changes was before the log-in page I had saved in my web browser. Oddly, the sign in web page had the same address. So after about two hours of trying to log in, I realized I had to register for unemployment on the MARVIN phone-in system. I did so. No apparent problem. Two weeks later, the phone system registration asked some questions, which I answered as honestly as I could (it is odd how 'yes' and 'no' answers are not always precise).

I received unemployment for the first week, but not the second week of my layoff. I did not understand why, but the UIA website instructed me to call an 800 number. I did so, about 1,000 (yes, really,1,000) times. I was using two phones, pushing redial on one phone, entering my social security number on the second phone (to save the phone number on the first phone) until the system said I had waited too long and hung me up. Then I push redial again. This went on for about a day and a half. Then realizing I was going to have to document looking for a job, I went out Friday, and turned in three job applications —  for three jobs that paid one-third of what I make, no benefits and none of those jobs would start before I went back to work, anyway.

The next Monday, I drove to Grand Rapids, about 100 miles, to the nearest UIA office. There was an accident on the freeway, so I did not arrive at the office until 8:21 a.m., 21 minutes after opening. I was the 97th person in line, and as I looked for a place to wait, person number eight was called. The first of the seven agents had just finished with their first client of the day. So I sat until almost noon before I talked to a customer service representative. The representative told me they had reset my online account so I could go online and see what was going on with my account. We discussed several things, but I really could not tell them much because I had received no communications from UIA except the money put in my account for the first week, and the denial message when I called requesting unemployment for the second week. The agent did comment that no one ever gets through on the 800 phone lines to an agent.

I assured the agent I thought I could straighten this out once I got online and could send emails to UIA (did I mention, you have to LOG IN to send an email to UIA) and could see what the real issues were with my account. So I drove home, two hours, and tried to log in. FAIL. Now, this is the middle of the fourth week I am laid off and I have to look for a job. So I did. For two days, applying for five more jobs I did not want and could not get. I went on vacation until the middle of the next week, a vacation set up months ahead. The money for that vacation was given to me the first week, when I got laid off, out of my accrued vacation pay.

So, week five I declared that as income. I had a direct deposit made for week three, but I did not get unemployment, initally, for week four. UIA did send me a questionnaire regarding that income, and eventually did directly deposit money into my account, presumably for week four. I can not tell. Later, I received a demand for the money I received for the first week back because of the money I received for the fourth week vacation. So I returned the amount demanded. Which, because of tax withholding, was more than the amount of money deposited into my account. Close, but I really have no way of knowing if it was correct.

Week seven, after I had returned to work, I was given a partial payment for week five, because I was given a payment from my employer for a paid holiday that week. I was not granted unemployment for week six. I do not know why. I do know I had to drive back to Grand Rapids to find out why, and I WAS BACK TO WORK. I did not have time to fight Snyder's system for money I did not expect to get anyway.

And the ultimate insult, to me, is this. I am sure my employer has to pay into the state of Michigan unemployment system as though I had collected for the entire six weeks, because they reported me as being laid off for the entire period.

So, who got good customer service? Me? My employer, who did not get the benefits they paid for? The overworked and undersupported UIA staff? The people of Michigan? Who comes out ahead? I know, and knew at the time, that I could have gotten in touch with a UIA employee by asking my legislator for assistance. I would rather live under a freeway bridge than be beholden to that person. That is the very definition of a corrupt system. One where you have to know someone to get your rights.

I am not happy with my customer service experience with the state of Michigan.