Cuts Have Consequences

By Denzel McCampbell

In February, the Lansing State Journal (LSJ) published a report showing the number of workers cut in each state department since September of 2010. The LSJ report found that leaders in Lansing laid off the most state workers from the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which houses the Michigan Unemployment Agency.

Budget cuts are affecting people across the country, including us in Michigan. Many elected officials claim that moving resources out of government agencies will actually improve their efficiency. Last week, we saw evidence proving them otherwise.

According to a lawsuit filed by the Sugar Law Center on behalf of the United Auto Workers and seven Michigan workers, the Michigan Unemployment Agency is violating the rights of jobless people by using a “robo-adjudication system” to make decisions on whether or not an unemployment claim is fraudulent. That’s right – a computer is making a decision on whether a person committed a crime, without any human oversight.

Plaintiffs in the case claim that the system unfairly denied their unemployment claims and sent notices that they committed fraud, threatening them with penalties totaling more than $20,000.

I can empathize with the anxiety and fear that the plaintiffs felt when they received such notices– because I did, too.

Last year, I experienced a period of unemployment. In my previous job, I happily paid payroll taxes because I knew that it supported a safety net that would help me if I fell on hard times. I applied for unemployment insurance, submitted the necessary documentation, received benefits, and fortunately, quickly found new employment. A few weeks later, however, I received threatening letters accusing me of misrepresentation and fraud, carrying large monetary penalties and possible criminal prosecution if my benefits were over a certain amount.

This type of letter would scare anyone, but imagine receiving this letter while you are dealing with the stress of job hunting while worrying about how you’ll be able to buy food or pay your bills – all because of a computer error.

After writing several letters to protest their decision, the accusations against me were dropped. But I can only imagine how much harder it would be for someone with fewer resources and less information to clear their name.

This problem and the resulting lawsuit are just the latest consequence of relentless budget cuts. Computers should not be judging unemployment cases, humans should. It’s time our elected officials invested the resources necessary for our state agencies to function effectively. Contrary to what some may believe, less funding doesn’t make programs better, it just hurts people.