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Whitmer laying off government workers as coronavirus hits Michigan budget

LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Wednesday temporarily laid off 2,903 state government employees, shaving about $5 million from what could be a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The move followed roughly 100 temporary layoff notices issued Tuesday by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office, bringing the running total of state cuts to more than 3,000 jobs.

The temporary layoffs will last for 10 days, according to emails sent to government employees Wednesday morning and first reported by Bridge Magazine. The furloughed workers will not be paid but will retain their health insurance and other benefits, and the state is promising to automatically sign them up for unemployment insurance.

The layoffs are spread across departments but will only impact 6 percent of the state's 48,000 government workers.  After 10 days, the state will “reassess whether” additional unpaid days are needed, said Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown.

“This is a difficult decision but it is the right thing to do to ensure we can continue providing critical services to the people of Michigan,” Brown said in a statement.

The latest: Michigan coronavirus map, locations, updated COVID-19 news

Whitmer said  she's "made a lot of hard choices in the past six weeks. This was one of the hardest. But this is the right thing to do to ensure we can continue providing critical services to the people of Michigan."

The layoffs include 900 staffers within the Michigan Department of State, the majority of whom work in branch offices closed during the pandemic. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office noted that many driver and vehicle transactions can be carried out online and at self-service stations located in grocery stores across the state. 

“This is an extremely challenging time for our state, our state government, and our department,” Benson said in a statement. “This decision was not easy, but is necessary to responsibly steward taxpayer funds at this time.”

There were also 428 temporary layoffs within the Michigan Department of Corrections, 279 within the Treausury Department, 264 in the Department of Natural Resources and 201 within the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the state Budget Office. 

Nessel’s office issued temporary layoff notices to more than 100 people on Tuesday, about 25 percent of the department’s workforce, according to spokesperson Kelly Rossman-McKinney.

Legal work has dramatically increased in some areas of the department during the public health crisis but slowed in others, she said.

The layoffs reflect “the difficult reality that we all face,” McKinney said. “The staff at this department do amazing work on behalf of the people of this state every single day.  We will continue to do that, regardless of the challenges that arise in the future.”

As Bridge Magazine has reported, state officials are bracing for up to $7 billion in revenue losses over the next 18 months, including $3 billion in the current fiscal year that ends in October. Sales tax, income tax and even gas tax collections are expected to drop because of the pandemic and Whitmer orders that shut non-essential businesses across the state. 

Michigan is receiving about $3.8 billion in assistance from the federal government under the relief bill signed by President Donald Trump on March 27.  But it appears that money can only be used to cover new costs resulting from the public health crisis, not to fill budget holes created by the ensuing economic disaster.  

Whitmer said the federal money has "a lot of restrictions, so they don't help meet the needs of a lot of the issues we're going to feel" in the state budget. She said she is working with the congressional delegation to try to get more money for state governments, but "we're going to have to make some tough decisions"

Senate Appropriations Chair Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican, last week called on Whitmer to temporarily layoff all non-essential state employees.
The furloughs announced Wednesday are "a start,” Stamas said, suggesting the administration should revisit the decision next week. “I’ve always said as we move through COVID-19, short periods of reassessing where we’re at is a positive way to go."
State workers “do an amazing job when they’re there and able to do their job,” he said, but many are already working from home and will be more critical in coming weeks when “we need to get the government up and running.”
Since April 5, Michigan has given “COVID-19 premium pay” to roughly 14,000 government workers on the frontlines of the pandemic who are a most at risk of contracting the virus, according to the state Budget Office.

Those workers within the departments of corrections, state police, natural resources, veterans affairs and health and human services can qualify for up to $750 in extra pay every two weeks, depending on their regularly scheduled hours.

The National Governors Association had urged Congress to include another $500 billion in “state stabilization funds” in its latest relief package, but the plan approved Tuesday by the U.S. Senate did not include any additional money for state or local governments.

“The magnitude of the crushing economic impact this virus has had on our states and residents cannot be overstated,” Whitmer and fellow governors from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania told Trump in a letter last week. 

“These cuts will undoubtedly lead to continued and major job losses in my state, where over 1 million new unemployment claims have been filed since March 15, a 5000 percent increase over a four-week period, representing roughly a quarter of the state’s workforce,” Whitmer wrote.

Whitmer said Monday she is taking a 10 percent pay cut from her $159,300 salary, a portion of which she’ll return to the state, and asked senior staffers in the executive office to take a 5 percent reduction.


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