When confused and scared Michiganders flooded state government with questions about what to do in the new coronavirus world, administration officials reached out to House Speaker Lee CHATFIELD (R-Levering) for reinforcements.
They asked for any legislator or staffer who had a few hours to spare to take from home COVID-19 hotline calls to answer questions about coronavirus symptoms, government services and basic tips on how to protect oneself from getting the virus.
Among those stepping forward was Rep. Mary WHITEFORD (R-Casco Twp.), a registered nurse, who was taking a lot of these types of calls from constituents anyway. She said if she could take the calls from her house, she’d be willing to put in an hour or so a day to help out.
Overall, some 23 House staffers and legislators said they were willing to help. As it turned out, a lot of state employees did, too. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported their call for help netted 750 volunteers from elsewhere within DHHS, other state departments and legislators.
“It demonstrates how committed state employees and legislators are to keeping Michiganders informed during the COVID-10 pandemic,” said DHHS spokesperson Bob WHEATON.
Due to the response, DHHS ended up not needing all of the volunteers. And since technical issues cropped up when volunteers didn’t have a Michigan.gov email address, legislators were among those whose services were passed up for now. House members use a house.mi.gov email address.
“I wish I could have helped,” said Rep. Jack O’MALLEY (R-Lake Ann), who volunteered along with his staff person. “We’re used to answering questions as opposed to maybe someone else who isn’t used to it. It’s just something I could have done.”
One area where it would seem the state needs help with calls is the Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA), which is seeing a 4,000% increase in call volume. Gov. Gretchen WHITMER said she’s even taking calls UIA, with some technical assistance from a regular UIA call center specialist. The agency should have 500 workers by week’s end and more are in the pipeline.
However, being trained to answer the myriad questions that come to processing a UIA claim comes after a multiple-day training, said Jason MOON, spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO).
“These people go through some detailed training that’s not related to processing claims, but fixing problems,” Moon said. “I would encourage any legislator to contact legislative affairs staff and that we’d work with them to distribute our resources so claimants can file a claim as efficiently as possible.”
But Rep. Annette GLENN (R-Midland) said that after addressing concerns of one constituent about her unemployment, she feels like she’s already well on her way.
“She was on the live chat for three or four hours. She was very frustrated and very scared. She had limited money in her bank account,” said Glenn, who said she worked with officials within state government to get the issue resolved within that three-to four-hour window the constituent was waiting for a response to the live chat.