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Coronavirus pandemic slams Detroit economy, protesters want change

Here’s another underlying reason why thousands of Millennials and Gen Z young people are protesting: rampant unemployment. 

In April, one out of every four Detroit workers was out of a job either temporarily or permanently, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Wednesday.  

April was the first full month of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order and business shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. The city of Detroit’s unemployment rate catapulted from 9.8 to 38.5 percent. Statewide, the rate is 23 percent.


Making systemic changes to ease financial hardship is a theme among the Detroit protests and nationwide, which was sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. 

One of the leaders to emerge from the local protests is Detroiter Tristan Taylor, who at age 37 is a Millennial. Taylor usually works as a barista in Midtown. He’s spoken out against income inequality issues many Detroit residents face. He is a co-founder of Detroit Renter City, a group that seeks to halt evictions due to the skyrocketing unemployment. The group wants Detroit police to refuse to enforce eviction orders. 

“No evictions!” Taylor repeatedly yells to the crowd of protesters.

Detroit’s unemployment rate is its highest this century, surpassing the 28 percent jobless rate in 2009 during the Great Recession, according to the labor department.

Millennials and Gen Z, along with people of color and women, were hit earliest and hardest by job losses during the pandemic, many economists believe. That’s due to the sectors in which many work: leisure, hospitality, retail, and food and beverage services.

Karmen Wettlin, a city resident and Millennial, was laid off from her downtown restaurant job in mid-March. “The hospitality industry is primarily staffed by black and brown bodies. There is no investment in the lives of the people that have worked to rebuild this city,” Wettlin said. “We’ve lost our jobs, our healthcare, our lives.”

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the “pandemic is falling on those least able to bear its burdens,” during a press conference last month. "It is a great increase of inequality.”

While workers of all ages face economic upheaval, Millennials are especially at risk. Now between roughly 24 and 40 years old, they have a much smaller financial cushion than prior generations had at their age to protect them from job losses and economic volatility, various economists contend. 

"Millennials as a whole were more vulnerable going into this," said Ana Hernandez Kent, a policy analyst for the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Especially for those who have lost jobs, lost their income and then have no wealth safety net to fall back on, they could really suffer from this and be hard-pressed to recover."

Gen Z is also experiencing economic uncertainty. Although new to the job market, summer jobs and internships have evaporated and they are more likely than older generations to work in industries impacted by social distancing, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Meeko Williams, 35, who helped organize the first protest on May 29 at the Detroit Police headquarters downtown, cited skyrocketing financial insecurity as a motivator.

 “Unemployment has hit 40 million Americans, making them reconsider what they are doing with their lives and we are the ones working all of the hours,” said Williams.

There's a record number of people applying. In Michigan, 1.8 million residents have filed for public assistance since the coronavirus prompted business shutdowns and a statewide stay-at-home order.

Detroit resident Christian Smith is among the estimated 124,000 still waiting for unemployment benefits. He's been waiting for more than two months for a single paycheck. ‘I can’t even get someone on the phone,” he said.

State officials can only give vague assurances when he and others may get their money.  

The cap on state unemployment is $362 per week, and the average payout is $325 per week.  

On Wednesday, 20 state House members urged an overhaul of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency as tens of thousands of Michigan residents face lengthy waits for help during the pandemic.

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