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Opinion | Lawmakers must act to protect unemployed Michiganders into 2021

For nine months, Michigan has battled the global COVID-19 pandemic, leading to historic levels of unemployment.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took bold action by signing an executive order to ensure millions of out-of-work Michiganders received the support they needed to stay afloat. In October, the state Supreme Court overruled the governor’s use of executive orders, putting this assistance into limbo.

After months of inaction, Michigan’s legislators finally had to do something related to COVID-19. They passed a law codifying some of the previous executive order, but also gave employers immunity from their unemployment insurance liability and extended the window in which an employer can protest a worker’s claim for benefits.

The law did not: 

  • Permanently restore Michigan to the national standard of 26 weeks of unemployment benefits
  • Extend coverage to people who have child care responsibilities
  • Extend claimant filing and appeal deadlines
  • Ensure claimants are not disqualified from benefits due to unrelated job history 
  • Clarify workers are eligible to receive benefits when placed on unpaid medical leave, and 
  • Update the total benefit amount claimants can receive.

​​Notably, the Legislature didn’t even increase the dependence allowance from the measly $6 per child, even though caregivers are being forced to leave the workforce at a significant rate because of ongoing school closures related to COVID-19. 

At the end of this month, the amount of time unemployed Michiganders receive benefits will revert back to 20 weeks, their window to apply for unemployment will be reduced and people will no longer receive benefits for leaving work to care for their children. 

Additionally, child care will not be covered, and the Unemployment Insurance Agency will be forced to once again review all separations during a claimant’s base period, even though only the most recent one is relevant to receive unemployment.

Michigan’s laws fall short for jobless workers, especially in comparison to other Midwestern states. For the past decade, Michigan’s benefits have only gone to 1 in 4 jobless workers. This means that rules the Legislature put in place caused only 26 percent of Michigan’s jobless workforce to actually be covered by unemployment insurance.

We know when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1, Michigan will still be grappling with COVID-19. Mass availability of vaccines will still be months away, which is why it is important for lawmakers to act to improve Michigan’s unemployment system.

Without Whitmer’s action in the spring, it is certain millions of out-of-work Michiganders would have fallen into poverty.

At a time when lawmakers should be doing all they can to provide additional support and make it easier for unemployed Michiganders to qualify for benefits, the opposite seems to be happening. 

Michigan families in need want partisan politics to be put aside in favor of getting relief.

Michiganders deserve better and need immediate legislative action to ensure families don’t head into the new year with more problems than they had in 2020.

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