Federal pandemic jobless benefits are gone. Experts say state lawmakers must now protect workers.

By: - September 9, 2021 2:57 am

Activists marched in a mock funeral procession in Denver to protest the expiration of a federal unemployment benefit. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Hundreds of thousands of Michiganders saw their COVID-related federal jobless aid end this week, leaving individuals and families to face yet another onslaught of challenges in a pandemic that is far from over from state unemployment laws that policy experts said are riddled with problems to unaffordable childcare barring people from returning to the workforce. 

Approximately 442,000 Michigan residents will no longer receive a range of federal pandemic benefits, according to the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency. These benefits included an additional $300 per weekly unemployment check, an extended amount of time people could receive jobless aid, and funding for gig workers not normally covered by state benefits.

“This was giving unemployed workers money in their pockets to spend in their local communities; without those benefits at the beginning of this awful COVID period, businesses and local economies would have been much worse off,” said Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP). “Is the state ready to lose that influx of federal dollars all at once?”

Essentially, Ruark and other policy experts said, the answer to that question is likely not if not altogether no. The reasons behind that answer are complex, but are rooted in Michigan’s unemployment system that lags far behind other Midwest states, experts said. 

One thing that this pandemic has done is it has shown a bright light on how weak Michigan’s unemployment protections are.

– Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy

This means that while some of those individuals who lost federal benefits may still be eligible for state aid, the maximum amount they’ll be able to receive $362 is lower than any other Midwest state and is not enough to prevent a family from falling below the poverty line, according to the MLPP’s recent report on the state’s unemployment insurance. 

“One thing that this pandemic has done is it has shown a bright light on how weak Michigan’s unemployment protections are,” Ruark said. 

“We cover the lowest number of workers in the Midwest; we don’t have protections for contractors,” he continued. “… There’s not a single county in Michigan where the average [unemployment insurance] will pay for rent.”

Joshua Kay, a law professor and co-director of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, agreed with Ruark, saying, “Michigan asks unemployed workers to get by on very little and with pretty severe conditions on the receipt of benefits.”

“Workers struggle to get by on the current Michigan unemployment system, and it’s a struggle to deal with the system itself; it’s pretty arduous,” said Kay, whose clinic represents workers facing challenges with unemployment insurance claims. 

Kay noted the clinic is filled to capacity and is not taking on any new clients.

Because of the state’s low weekly payments, limited amount of time an individual can be on unemployment 20 weeks at most, which Republicans cut during the former Gov. Rick Snyder era — and automated system that determines unemployment eligibility but ends up denying legitimate claims, according to Kay, Michiganders searching for jobs face an often exhausting battle to live and support their families while finding work.

“Michigan’s unemployment system puts a great deal of extra pressure on people dealing with unemployment, which actually makes it harder for them to engage in being able to get their next job,” Kay said. “If you’re battling a system and really struggling to get by, that’s a degree of stress that actually makes it harder to go out and get a job. You have less time and less resources available.”

The Legislature, which is currently controlled by Republicans, has the ability to change all of this, Ruark and Kay both emphasized. 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“This Legislature needs to act,” Ruark said. “There are some legislators who are very sanctimonious about the shortcomings within the [Unemployment Insurance Agency], and yet they’re doing nothing to improve unemployment policy in this state.”

Kay noted that lawmakers can increase both the amount of time an individual is on unemployment as well as the weekly amount they receive. 

“It’s entirely up to the legislature to fix: the 14 to 20 weeks [that someone can access unemployment] is statutory; the benefits amount is statutory,” Kay said. “If it’s statutory, that means the legislature could fix it and provide greater relief for workers, and I wish they would do so.”

As unemployed workers navigate this new landscape without federal benefits, some are turning to employment agencies for help finding jobs. West Michigan Works!, for example, has seen a “small uptick in people looking for work over the last couple of weeks,” said Brittany Lenertz, regional service center director for West Michigan Works!

“It’s a great time to look for work,” Lenertz said. “People are raising wages; they’re getting creative about meeting the needs of people coming back to work.”

Still, Lenertz said, the disappearance of federal benefits doesn’t necessarily translate to the hundreds of thousands of Michiganders now without federal pandemic aid returning to the workforce in large part because of difficulty finding child care. 

“I don’t think we can underestimate how big childcare is in people’s job searches,” Lenertz said. “If you have young kids, it’s very hard to find childcare right now. Childcare providers are finding the same challenges in finding workers as everybody else is. Childcare is really expensive right now and getting more and more so. For somebody to take a job, it has to make sense for them to pay for childcare.”

Michigan currently has about $1.4 billion in childcare assistance funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and the CARES Act, which have yet to be appropriated by the Legislature. In June, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled a $1.4 billion plan that would increase pay for child care providers as well as make child care more affordable for families in Michigan.

I don’t think we can underestimate how big childcare is in people’s job searches. If you have young kids, it’s very hard to find childcare right now.

– Brittany Lenertz, regional service center director for West Michigan Works!

If childcare becomes more accessible and affordable, Lenertz said that would pave the way for more people, especially women, returning to the labor force. Additionally, Lenertz noted, “people’s relationship to work is changing in a way I’m not sure anybody understands.”

“We know employers were looking for employees even prior to COVID; we were talking about a labor shortage at that point and COVID accelerated that,” Lenertz said. “I think people have taken stock of their lives and situations, and some are choosing not to go back to work, some want more flexibility, some want part-time work, and some people want entrepreneurship opportunities.”

Because of the changing employment landscape, Lenertz said employers are changing the way they do business. In addition to raising wages, she noted that industries that don’t traditionally offer part-time positions are now beginning to do so.

“Manufacturers are offering part-time shifts from 9 to 2 so people can drop their kids off at school and be done in time to pick them up from school,” Lenertz said.

As unemployed workers are figuring out their job situations, Kay said it’s going to be a daunting time for many of those who have lost benefits. 

“When people’s benefits stop prematurely or wrongfully, they enter a period of economic crisis very quickly,” he said. “These are benefits that are meant to be spent right away on life’s necessities. I think that’s similar to this situation; they’re facing a radical reduction of benefits. I can tell you from my experience with my clients that they end up facing very painful choices very quickly. How do I pay my rent? How do I put food on the table? How do I maintain a phone line? It happens very quickly.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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