Column: Workers need protection during the pandemic — on and off the job

June 19, 2020 5:20 am

A Target store employee collects shopping carts to bring back into the store on August 21, 2019 | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This has been a difficult last couple of months in Michigan as businesses have had to close and residents and families have had to practice social distancing. While technology enables some workers to work from home, for very many workers, this has not been an option. 

From the week ending March 23 through the week ending May 30, more than 1.5 million Michiganders filed for Unemployment Insurance (UI). Many of the workers who filed have begun receiving their UI payments. 

However, many others are still waiting, as Michigan’s UI system struggles to keep up with the demand, workers in the Unemployment Insurance Agency work overtime to process claims and answer questions, and the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity takes steps to protect unemployment claimants and funds from identity theft by an international fraud operation. (See here for ways to protect yourself from UI identity theft.)

Through federal legislation and funding along with executive orders by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, UI has been made stronger in Michigan during the COVID-19 pandemic. The maximum duration of benefits has been restored temporarily to 26 weeks from the current 20 weeks and there are additional federally funded weeks available for workers who have still not found a job after 26 weeks. 

Workers who are not normally eligible for UI in Michigan, such as contract workers and gig workers, also may collect UI benefits. Finally, there is an additional $600 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation added to each worker’s UI benefit — but only through the end of July. The other provisions will expire at the end of 2020.

At the Michigan League for Public Policy, we are concerned about several things regarding workers, their employment and Unemployment Insurance in Michigan during this pandemic. 

We are concerned about workers who are required to work but feel the conditions are unsafe. We are concerned about workers who believe they themselves may be ill with the coronavirus (or for that matter, are ill for other reasons), but fear repercussions from their supervisors or employers if they do not come to work. We are concerned about those who “blow the whistle” about unsafe working conditions and face retaliation from their supervisors or employers. 

And we are also concerned that workers in these kinds of situations who leave their jobs may be deemed ineligible for UI, due to the separation being declared a “voluntary quit.”

A new report from the National Employment Law Project found that retaliation against whistleblowers in the workplace is prevalent during the pandemic. The report also found that Black workers are more likely to work under conditions that are both hazardous and repressive.

The League is also concerned that after the emergency orders have been lifted and we all take off our masks and try to get back to normal, there will be many workers who remain unemployed, either because their workplaces themselves have shuttered or because of ripple effects from the quarantines and business slowdowns of the past couple of months.

After 2020, the federal provisions will no longer be in place and, if the Michigan Legislature does not act, the state—and its workers — will be stuck with the inadequate UI policies we have had for many years: low benefits, only 20 weeks maximum duration of benefits, and the leaving behind of many workers who ought to be eligible.

Some policymakers in Lansing are working to address all of these concerns facing Michigan workers and their families. 

A package of bills has been introduced in both the Michigan House (HB 5797HB 5801) and Senate (SB 929SB 0932) to address the worker safety problems These worker safety bills provide specific penalties for violations of worker safety standards and prohibit employers from taking adverse employment action against employees who raise concern over infection control or who are absent from work during a declared emergency.

Bills also have been introduced in the House that will make permanent some of the provisions of the federal legislation and make other improvements to Michigan’s UI program. The legislation would permanently restore the maximum duration of unemployment benefits to 26 weeks and restore the maximum weekly benefit to 58% of the average weekly wage, which has been at roughly $362 since 2002.

One bill would reserve an amount in the UI contingent fund to assist workers who have been wrongly accused of fraud and who have experienced serious hardship as a result. And legislation introduced in both the House and Senate would provide an “ABC test” to make sure that employees are not misclassified as independent contractors and are rightfully eligible for unemployment benefits.

Worker advocates have been pushing for many of these changes for years. But these improvements — along with other much-needed changes to Michigan’s unemployment statute and its automated computer system — are particularly relevant now that COVID-19 has placed the state’s unemployment system under the microscope. 

The League and our partners have outlined our recommendations in a recent report, shared them in a letter to Whitmer and discussed them with interested lawmakers over Zoom

But Michigan workers continue to be the most important voice in this conversation. Together, we can seize this opportunity and help some good come out of the COVID-19 crisis.

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Peter Ruark
Peter Ruark

Peter Ruark has worked at the Michigan League for Public Policy since 2001 and currently serves as a Senior Policy Analyst. He specializes in public policy related to adult skill enhancement, college financial aid, job quality, public assistance and corrections. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and psychology from Calvin College and a Master of Social Work with a concentration in policy, planning and administration from Western Michigan University.