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Michigan 'Rocket Docket' Welfare Hearings Unfair, Citizens Say

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BUDGET CUTS
Thousands of union members from around the state gather at the State Capitol to protest Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's proposed budget cuts April 13, 2011, in Lansing, Mich. | Getty Images

Families who showed up to attend mass welfare hearings Monday morning outside the Michigan Department of Human Services offices on Detroit's Lappin Street watched as the line in front of the door quickly morphed into a political rally.

Picketers from UAW Local 6000 and local community groups showed up to lend their support to those who had recently lost financial assistance due to state cutoffs. They also protested the rushed nature of the hearings, which they called "rocket dockets." Around 50 people participated in the rally.

The hearings were originally requested by thousands of Michigan residents cut off from welfare cash assistance in October, according to the Michigan Citizen.

The state responded by scheduling the hearings and assigning administrative law judges to quickly decide the cases with an up-or-down vote during a two-day window.

Colleen Russo, Director of Communications for the Michigan Department of Human Services said the reductions in benefits are not cuts and that the DHS is simply enforcing the state's four-year, life-long cash assistance restrictions.

Many of the families whose payments have been discontinued had their benefits discontinued under a new departmental policy limiting welfare payments to the federal limit of 60 months, the Detroit News reported. Approximately 100 families have lost benefits under a law passed by the legislature this summer limiting cash assistance to 48 months.

Under the new rules, nearly 41,000 people statewide will lose payments averaging $515 a month, the Detroit News reports.

"The fact that the DHS has scheduled almost 989 cases to be expedited in two days, we feel is unjust," said Miya Williamson, the Financial Secretary Treasurer of UAW Local 6000, which covers state employees.

Ray Holman, the local's legislative liason, said the decision to cram so many cases in such a short time puts many of his local's membership who work at the DHS in a bad position.

He explained, "There have been numerous assaults over the last two years when people become very frustrated, and our workers are there on the frontlines."

State Sen. Coleman Young, Jr. (D-Detroit) attended the demonstration. He said the hearings violated citizens' rights to due process and were unconstitutional because they retroactively applied a lifelong limit for state cash assistance.

"The whole budget is written with the wrong priorities," he added. "Why is it always the poorest of the poor that have to be sacrificed in order for the wealthy to gain?"

Russo said the hearings did not violate due process.

"This is not a situation where people are given a certain allotted amount of time. They can take as much time as they need to provide their case and it will be reviewed by the administrative law judge," she said.

Inside the offices, those waiting for their hearings were frustrated and many wondered if their cases would be heard at all.

Wyeberkeisha Eaton said she had been scheduled, but was told she would not get a hearing that day. She agreed with those who said that the state had violated her right to due process.

"They should give people more time in order to apply for a job, to find a job. I mean if there [are] no jobs out here, what do you do?" she said.

Russo said exceptions will be made for disabled people who qualify and their caretakers, as well as victims of domestic violence and certain people over the age of 65. She added that those who have lost benefits may still qualify for other programs and that the state has given a three-month extension to rent assistance, which affects the "11,162 families dealing with appeals cases right now." According the Russo, only 200 families had applied after numerous attempts to contact them.

Holman said that although some politicians may say there is a need to "get tough" on welfare recipients, the cut-offs really have nothing to do with money.

"This is totally a political decision," he said. "Right now, the state is actually bringing more money than was originally forecasted. During the last revenue estimating conference the state was up almost $400 million."

Initially the state had scheduled families to lose their benefits on Oct. 1, but a federal judge ruled they hadn't been given adequate notice by DHS.

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