Faced with the collision of health and economic crises during the Covid-19 pandemic, legislators in Lansing are looking for ways to keep essential workers safe and still be able to provide for their families. Democratic representatives joined with unemployed workers and front-line staff recovering from COVID-19 to call for expanded unemployment insurance benefits and automatic workers compensation for essential workers infected with COVID-19.
HB 4895 is sponsored by Rep. Terry Sabo (D-92, Muskegon) and seeks to increase the maximum state unemployment benefit to 58 percent of the state average weekly wage, with a weekly cap of $542, a level that has remained unchanged since 2002.
“Right now, our unemployment rate is worse than at any time since the Great Depression. Anyone who thinks that we’re just going to bounce right out of this isn’t paying attention,” said Sabo. “During the last recession, it took 8 years to gain back all the jobs we lost in this country. We have federal benefits to help for now, but that’s not permanent. That’s why our legislation is so urgent. We need to raise the floor that unemployed workers get for state benefits.”
Rachel Litwiller is an unemployed restaurant worker and member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) who lives in Lansing with her husband and 3 children. She has worked most of her life in the service industry and never had to ask for financial support before the pandemic. She has so far been unable to access unemployment benefits despite being out of work for more than two months. “These bills are important,” she said. “Right now, we’re not paying our utility bills while we hope things get better, but I’m not sure how long we can last. My family needs to access unemployment benefits to stay afloat.” Litwiller also pointed out that the unemployment formula discriminates against tipped workers because it is only calculated based on their $3.25 hourly wage, not their tips.
A companion piece of legislation, HB 4894 is sponsored by Rep. Donna Lasinski (D-52, Scio Township) which would extend the period for unemployment benefits from 20 weeks to 26, add a new $20 per week benefit for dependents, and increase the base basement from $320 to $550.
"While the Governor has extended the number of weeks of unemployment from 20 to 26 weeks by executive order during this crisis, that is only a temporary measure,” Rep. Lasinski said. “Right now, the Republicans in the legislature are trying to strip Gov. Whitmer of her emergency authority and end executive orders that are helping people during the pandemic. This is too important to leave up to politics. We need to extend Michigan unemployment benefits to 26 weeks as standard policy.”
Besides the loss of income from the economic downturn, many frontline workers are discovering that actually contracting the disease is not covered under existing workers’ compensation laws. Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-19, Livonia) is trying to correct this. She is sponsoring HB 5758 which would extend the protections to include infectious disease for essential employees during a declared emergency.
One such employee is Tinae Moore, an emergency room technician and member of the State Employees International Union (SEIU). After watching patients die at an alarming rate, she herself contracted the virus due to a severe lack of personal protective equipment. “Our employer gave us two weeks of paid quarantine leave, and then I used all two weeks of my paid time off. Then I had to start taking unpaid leave,” said Moore. “We are not eligible for workers compensation for that unpaid time, and I’ve been trying to apply for under-employment, but I can’t get through.”
“Many of us are rightly calling our health care workers heroes. We need to treat them like heroes when they get sick. My bill automatically makes essential workers eligible for workers compensation if they contract COVID-19,” said Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-19, Livonia) “They shouldn’t have to fight with their employer or the insurance company to prove that they got COVID from work. It’s absurd to ask them to prove when and how they got COVID, since the federal government has completely failed to provide adequate testing.”